There’s no need to repeat that we are in the midst of the worst crisis of capitalism since the 1930’s: even in the mass media this has become a mantra. But why are we in this mess? The course of action (or inaction) that is advocated depends on the answer to this question. Already, the way in which the crisis is portrayed implies an answer. The mass media has inundated us with stories of greed, stories of mismanagement and of lack of regulation. The “Anglo-Saxon,” “neo-liberal” model of unbridled free markets has been thoroughly discredited, the economic heroes of the right have fallen from their pedestals, and good old Keynes is back in fashion. The new consensus favors more regulation, more state-intervention, and more debt creation by the state in order to counter-act the deflationary pull that is contracting the economy. The debate is only about how much. That is a debate that, by its nature, is waged within the left of the capitalist political spectrum. It pits those who believe that fine-tuning the symbiosis between the state and private capital leads to the best of all possible worlds, against those who hallucinate that, through gradual statification of the economy, they will ease capitalist society into socialism. But the latter support the first in their narrative of the crisis as a result of greed, mismanagement and deregulation. They both critique capitalism, to various degrees, but their critique is a positive one. They share and propagate the belief that capitalism can be improved upon. That makes them the most crucial defenders of capitalism today.
There is another answer to the “why are we in this mess?” question. An answer that was implied in the recent Greek riots, in the refusal of workers in France to share responsibility for the crisis, in the refusal of workers in China to obey the law, in the determination of unemployed construction workers in the US spontaneously organizing themselves to give back empty property to the homeless...an answer that says: capitalism is obsolete. It's time for something new.
If the time comes that this answer swells into mass struggles, there will be a need for a strong pro-revolutionary political movement that articulates clearly what is then intuitively felt and, through its clarity, helps to wipe the dust of time and memory loss, and all the ideological cobwebs off the mirror, so that the collective worker can recognize himself. Today, what these pro-revolutionaries have to say is not very popular. Again and again, they throw cold water on the proposals of the left (or the right) to make some improvements in the current system. To the reproach: “but what do you propose then concretely?” they can only say: uncompromising resistance against the misery that capitalism in crisis is inflicting on the working class. They can only offer the hope that in this resistance, the working class will transform itself into a class for itself, and thereby free humankind; that in its self-organization, post-capitalist society will begin to take shape. As a result, pro-revolutionaries are called utopians by those who do not dare to stare reality in the face, and who cling to illusions in the name of “realism.”
In contrast to the left, the pro-revolutionary critique of capitalism is a negative one. It claims that the current crisis will worsen, whatever measures are taken. At best, these measures will slow its acceleration, but any reflation will be a reflation of the bubble; because the bubble is not only in real estate and in finance. The world economy as a whole is a bubble that must explode or deflate, with terrible consequences for the vast majority of humanity, regardless of how and by whom this is managed. In its first phase, this deflationary pressure quite naturally manifested itself in a crisis of confidence in the banking system, which could, for now, be stemmed by state intervention. The force of the deflationary trend, and the degree to which the state resists it, will determine how quickly this will become a crisis of confidence in the state, in the dollar, in the euro etc. When that point is reached, there is no other higher power that can come to the rescue. Capitalism becomes the most dangerous when the flight forward is the only alternative left.
The negative critique of capitalism claims that it can’t be repaired because the crisis is the direct result of the historic over-ripeness of its very foundation: the value-form.
A world of value
Value is the most powerful god on earth, worshiped and obeyed as no other. We humans invented it, but we serve its needs, not the other way around. We suffer and die, so that its accumulation can continue. Although a human construct, it has autonomized itself and appears to us as an outside force like the weather, which we can try to manipulate, but to which ultimately we must adapt and suffer its consequences, however terrible.
Even though it has become completely irrational for society to continue to base its interactions on the value-form, value could not exist without rational thinking and is entirely logical. Its logic has become increasingly complex with the development of capitalist society, and implies now the necessity of money, banks, states, borders, armies, police, unions, churches and pornography and many, many prisons, some called “prisons,” others “schools,” “factories,” “offices” or “barracks.” According to the logic of value, none of that can be dispensed with. It begins quite simply though.
It’s quite logical that societies that produce a surplus product, beyond their own needs of reproduction, engage in exchange. It’s logical that such exchange creates a market, where everybody wants to sell as high as possible and everybody wants to buy as low as possible. It’s logical then that the exchange of commodities will occur on the base of the amount of average labor time needed to produce them. If a commodity fetches a higher price than others requiring the same amount of socially necessary labor time (snlt), labor power will flow to its production to take advantage of the higher yield, until oversupply on the market forces it down so that its value (snlt) is exchanged for an equal amount of value (snlt). In this way, the more a society’s production is geared to the market, the more the law of value decides where its labor power is allocated. Value is the architect of capitalist society.
Markets and money and thus value existed before the capitalist mode of production. But the law of value can operate only to the degree that concrete, specific labor becomes abstract, undifferentiated labor. It supposes an equality of labor of different sorts so that it is interchangeable and there is the constant possibility to shift labor power from one area of production to another. The expansion of the market thus logically led to the next step: labor power itself became a commodity, freely bought and sold. That was the birth of capitalism, which is based on the fact that this commodity creates value, while its own value, like that of other commodities, is determined by the snlt required for its production. The worker works 10 hours, but the production of the goods and services he needs to be able to continue to sell his labor power requires only 5 hours of snlt. 5 hours is the equivalent of the labor power he sold yet he works 10 hours. The value of the 5 other hours goes to the capitalist who owns the product of his labor. The value of a commodity in capitalism thus becomes: c+v+s, in which c (constant capital) stands for the value of the past labor (machinery, infrastructure, raw materials) that is consumed in its production, v (variable capital) for the value of the new labor power that is used in its production, and s (surplus-value) for the snlt that labor power expended on its production minus the snlt needed to reproduce its own value (v).
Money makes the world go round
While previous ruling classes had squeezed society in order to amass wealth and power, with the advent of capitalism, the accumulation of abstract value through the production of s became the goal of society, the driving force of the economy. That required another pre-capitalist invention capitalism could not exist without: money. The value of that very peculiar commodity, with the unique ability to represent abstract value and therefore to be exchangeable for all other commodities, and thus making their exchange possible, was originally, like that of other commodities, the snlt needed to produce it. Money existed already as a particular commodity before it became the universal commodity making possible the exchange of all others. What made it money was the fact that the characteristics of this particular commodity (typically precious metals), made it the most suitable to measure the value (snlt) of other commodities, thus making it possible to express their value in prices (in a quantity of money). But as soon as the market arose, there was a need for a middleman in the exchange of commodities. For complex exchanges to take place, it had to be possible to sell without buying and to buy without selling, to exchange commodities for a general medium of exchange, representing exchange value in general.
While this second function of money is made possible by the first, it also stands in contradiction to it. As a measure of value (as a particular commodity) it didn’t matter how much of it was present (money didn’t need to be there for the values of other commodities to be expressed in it, they only had to be, as Marx put it, "ideally transformed" into money to be compared), but the value of its material substance of course mattered very much. As a medium of exchange (as the general commodity), the material substance of money didn’t matter: inasmuch as it is only a symbol of exchange value in general, any symbol accepted as such will do. But since it represents exchange value as against all commodities, its quantity now matters very much and must grow (or decline) in proportion to the quantity of commodities the circulation of which it makes possible. As a medium of exchange, at first sight it doesn’t really alter the process of barter, but only makes it more complex: instead of the direct exchange of commodities (C-C), we now have a barter of a particular commodity for the universal commodity money (C-M) and another one of money for another particular commodity (M-C). But the process is altered fundamentally because now: "the acts of purchase and sale ... appear as two mutually indifferent acts, separated in time and space .… Their indifference can develop into the fortification and apparent independence of one against the other. But in so far as they are both essential moments of a single whole, there must come a moment when the independent form is violently broken and when the inner unity is established externally through a violent explosion. Thus already ... in the splitting of exchange into two acts, there lies the germs of crises, or at least their possibility." (1)
This split of exchange into two acts also is what allowed money to acquire a third function, essential to capitalism. It presupposes the first two functions and unifies them.
Once money is a particular commodity that measures exchange value and a general commodity that mediates and thereby splits exchange, it becomes the universal material representative of wealth, a commodity in which exchange value can be stored and thus accumulated. Thus, the accumulation of money became the alpha and omega of society’s reproduction. “Money makes the world go round,” as the song says: it is advanced to buy constant capital and labor power (c+v), whose productive consumption creates more value (c+v+s) and thus more money. And so on, ad infinitum. Profit guides the way. Since the desire for more money is endless, capitalism’s capacity to expand seems endless too.
It seems almost a perfect system, except for one thing: value isn’t stable. It isn’t permanent. That is clear enough for most commodities: if they remain unsold, they lose their value. But money seems different. Other commodities are "perishable money" as Marx wrote, they must be transformed into money or lose their value. But money, "the imperishable commodity," can store its value and need not be transformed.
But it only looks that way. Money is the universal representative of wealth only because it is exchangeable. That means that its capacity to store value remains real only in so far as its exchangeability remains real, in so far as "real exchange value constantly steps into the place of its representative, constantly changes places with it, constantly exchanges itself for it." (2) This doesn’t mean that the value of money equals the value of the goods it circulates. Accumulation requires saving; value must be able to leave the reproductive cycle and return to it. There must be a "hoard" of money capital which functions as latent productive capital, that flows into the sphere of production when accumulation requires it, that, while not functioning as a means of circulation, remains a potential means of payment. But the degree to which this hoard, this money capital, represents real value and not just fictitious capital, is not simply determined by the value it represented when it was withdrawn from the reproductive cycle. All money is by definition a claim on future value and can therefore only expand to the degree the creation of value expands. Money capital is merely an affirmation of possession of a share of the total value. If that total value shrinks, or expands at a slower rate than money capital, the latter represents less value and thus must be devalorized.
The instability of value also explains why accumulation is a necessity in capitalism. Only by setting in motion productive forces and thereby producing surplus value, and thus expanding value (or stealing from those who do), can existing capitals prevent their own devalorization.
The dual nature of the commodity
Before the products of human labor were commodities, made for a market, they had of course a value too. The value of bread for instance, was that it was nutritious and tasted good. People wanted it. It had a use-value.
In order to have exchange-value, a commodity needs to have a use-value. This doesn’t mean that it has to be objectively useful, only that it has to take a concrete form that makes it desirable for someone with the money to buy it. This is the element that prevents the accumulation of value from becoming completely autonomous from the actual needs of society. This accumulation needs to take the form of an expansion of use-values, even if this is only a means to expand abstract exchange value, which is the real goal and function of the capitalist.
So the expansion of use-values and exchange-value must develop in tandem, as a unified process. Yet they are quite different. As a use-value, a commodity has specific characteristics that define it. But its exchange-value is not an inherent quality of the thing. Rather, it is the value of the capital advanced for its production plus surplus value. It is a social relation, capital-labor. While conquering the world and eliminating or marginalizing all other modes of production, capitalist commodity production reproduces and spreads this social relation continuously.
The dual nature of the commodity, exchange-value and use-value, explains its success in doing so. The hunt for surplus value yielded an ever-growing surplus product, and this superior productivity was "the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls" (The Communist Manifesto). If we see history as an incessant struggle to overcome the conditions of scarcity humankind was born into, and thus as a progression of labor productivity, capitalism appears as a necessary and unavoidable phase. That it is also a transitory phase is again due to the dual nature of the commodity.
The crisis is in the commodity itself, in its dual nature. Today it is quite obvious that use-value and exchange-value are unhinged. Never has productivity, and thus the capacity to expand use-values, been as great. At the same time, never has the growing incapacity to expand exchange value manifested itself as clearly as in today’s world, drowning in overcapacity , while more and more human needs remain unmet. The expansion of use-values and of exchange- value no longer work in tandem. Profit determines whether, where, and when, labor power is allocated. Two billion people are unemployed because capital can’t use them to expand exchange-value. The expansion of exchange-value is in trouble and it is the expansion of the capacity to produce use-values that dug the hole from which it can’t get out without causing massive destruction.
Exchange-value has become a ridiculous measuring rod for a society whose real wealth is no longer based on labor time.
As Marx put it: "The creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and on the amount of labor employed, than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labor time, whose 'powerful effectiveness' is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology ... The human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself ... He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct labour time he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body -- it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth." (3)
But for most of the ascendant period of capitalism, this conflict between real wealth and capitalist wealth did not yet arise. Use-values and exchange-value expanded in tandem. Gradually, capitalism took over all forms of commodity production, and expanded commodity production to domains where it had never before existed. This reorganization of production meant a socialization of the labor process. Bringing workers together in a collective workplace, giving them specialized tasks, making their labor interchangeable, all brought huge cost savings and productivity growth. This rising productivity meant that the difference between the snlt workers performed and the snlt needed to produce their necessities grew, even if the latter expanded too as a result of workers struggle and societal changes. The more proletarians were hired, the longer they were made to work and the lower the value of their reproduction, the more unpaid labor time was pooled and the more surplus value was created. Employment, productivity, and profit, grew hand in hand. The more proletarians were created by the development of the productive forces, the more productivity and value creation increased. They therefore seemed synonymous. The more material wealth, the more profit. There was a balance between the growth of exchange-value and of use-values. The wellspring of both was the same: surplus-labor. The law of value was in harmony with the productive forces of that period.
There are two ways to produce surplus value. For centuries, capitalism’s focus was on the most obvious one: lengthening the working day. Capitalism did not yet develop a new, intrinsically capitalist method of production. The weaver made cloth as he did before, but now he did it in a manufactory for a wage. Obviously, the longer he worked for that wage, the more surplus-value the owner of the product of his labor obtained.
There is another way to produce surplus value. Instead of increasing the absolute length of the working day (which has its natural limits), increasing the relative part of the working day during which the worker performs cost-free for the capitalist, by decreasing the other part, the snlt that is the equivalent of what he buys with his wage. In other words, the more the value of the worker’s wage falls, relative to the value of what he produces, the more surplus-value he creates.
But the value of his workers’ wage is something the capitalist has no direct control over, other than by trying to intensify the labor process above the social norm. Of course he always tries to push the wage under the value of the labor power and often succeeds, thanks to an oversuply of workers or the successful use of violence and ideology against them, still, under normal conditions, the law of value regulates the labor market like any other, which means that at least tendentially, labor power is bought at its value. Generally, the decline of the relative value of the wages, is not the result of what any particular capitalist does, but of the rise of the general productiveness of society, which makes the commodities which the worker needs ever cheaper.
What the worker needs is a limited quantity of use-values, that enable him to stay healthy, to raise a family, to have a home and enough food for body and mind…use-values that expand with the changes of society but that remain a reflection of what, in a given society, is considered necessary for the reproduction of labor power. The more productive that society is, the less snlt is required to produce these use-values and consequently the higher the relative surplus-value for the capitalist.
Marx saw capitalism’s main source of profit shifting from absolute to relative surplus-value. But by increasing the productivity of labor, a capitalist does not directly obtain more value. “"A working day of a given length creates the same amount of exchange-value, no matter how productivity may vary" (4). The increase in productivity means only that this "given value is spread over a greater mass of products." His greater productivity does not reduce the value of his workers’ wages, not unless he sells commodities destined for them. So what’s his motivation to invest in it?
His incentive comes not so much from the opportunity to create more value than from the opportunity to grab more value created elsewhere. From the possibility of a surplus-profit. It arises “as soon as the individual value of his product falls below its social value and can be sold accordingly above its individual value”. (5) The social value is the quantity of snlt which in a given economy is required for the production of a given commodity and thus tends to be defined by the average, preponderant methods of production. So those who need more snlt to produce that commodity make a less than average profit and those who need less, obtain a surplus-profit. It’s important to note that this surplus-profit, resulting from an increase of labor-productivity, is not necessarily an extra-profit for capital as a whole. The total value, and thus the total purchasing power, does not swell with it. Assuming that the length of the working day, the value of labor power and the intensity of the labor process stay the same, the rate of surplus value production stays the same too. In Marx’s view, assuming a closed capitalist system, all sv=unpaid snlt and the total profit=total sv. So if the capitalist with the higher labor productivity produces no more sv but gets a higher profit, what is the source of his surplus-profit?
For Marx, by definition, no value is created outside the production process (6). No sv originates in the phase of circulation, in which the commodities resulting from production are bought and sold, to be unproductively consumed or employed as new productive forces. But while in this circulation no sv is created, it is redistributed. The market rewards the capitalist who pushes the value of a commodity under the social norm. But it rewards it with value that comes from elsewhere, be it from competitors who are forced to accept less than the snlt that went into their own production, or from buyers who obtain less value in exchange.
That reward was so rich that the hunt for surplus-profit became the dominant driving force of capitalist accumulation. As a result, capitalism became the most fertile soil ever for the development of science and technology. Every capitalist not only has a strong incentive for technological innovations (surplus profit) , he is also forced to adopt them. Those who fail to do so, produce commodities with a value-content that is higher than the socially average market value at which they’re sold. They thus make a less than average profit and, when the difference grows, go belly-up. The surplus-profit disappears when the productivity-raising technological innovation spreads and becomes itself the social norm. But the hunt for it continues. Capitalists, as well as entire sectors and countries, who succeed in continuously maintaining a higher than average rate of productivity-growth, continuously obtain surplus-profits, which originate as surplus-value produced elsewhere.
The focus on surplus-profit through technological innovation, and its by-product, the resulting decline of the value of labor power and thus rise of relative surplus-value, changed society to its core. A new, specifically capitalist process of production began to take shape. Marx called this ‘the transition to the real subsumption of labor’ (or ‘real domination of capital’) because technology allowed the law of value to penetrate deep into the labor process. Capitalism now not just dominated the production processes inherited from the past but reshaped them entirely. Science and technology made that possible but their own development in turn became more and more shaped by the law of value, by the purpose of reducing snlt, to obtain surplus-profit.
Gradually, the production process became entirely different. The worker used to be at its center, his tools were appendages of his limbs. But now the relation was reversed: the worker became an appendage to the machine, which dictated his work pace and all of his actions, which made every gesture measurable as a quantity of snlt.
At first sight, this evolution has only benefits for capitalism. It unleashes giant advances in productivity, in the capacity to create real wealth. This in turn makes it possible to reduce the part of the working day spent on necessary labor (for the reproduction of labor-power) and thereby increases the part that is surplus-labor, that yields surplus- value. It furthermore gives capitalism the power to extend its realm, both inward and outward; to transform the entire world into its image.
While the transition to real domination is a long historical process that continues to our day, its theoretical endpoint, a world in which the law of value penetrates all parts of the planet, all aspects of civil society, transforms every object, every activity into a commodity, absorbs every emanation of social, political and cultural life into the fabric of the market, comes creepily close to what we are living.
Beneficial as this transition was for the reach of the law of value, it also shattered the harmony within value itself.
"On the one side, it calls into life all the powers of science and of nature ... in order to make the creation of wealth (relatively) independent of the labor time employed on it. On the other side [the law of value dictates] to use labor time as the measuring rod for the giant forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value." (7)
Use value and exchange value, the two sides of the commodity, become unhinged. Use-values grow exponentially through technification, a process in which living labor is subtracted, replaced by technology. But the growth of exchange-value requires that living labor-power is added. The exponential growth-rate of use-values also clashed with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption in capitalism rest.
Capitalism is born out of conditions of scarcity and presupposes them. Abundance makes it sick, because abundance in capitalism can only mean overproduction. Without scarcity, it cannot “maintain the already created value as value”.
The inevitable fall of the rate of profit
The seeds for the periodic self-destruction of capital are already contained in the value-form itself but sprouted as a result of the transition to the real domination of capital. Productiveness now becomes determined, not by the amount of labor time spent in production but by the application of science and technology, set in motion and steered by the collective worker. The productivity-growth creates a pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, it increases the unpaid part of the working day (relative surplus-value), on the other, it decreases living labor in production, from which the surplus-value can never be more than a part. So while at certain times the first pull is stronger and the rate of profit rises, over the long run, the tendential fall of the rate of profit dominates, because there is no immanent limit to the degree in which the value of a commodity can fall, in which the production process can be run on past labor with ever less living labor; while for relative surplus-value, "its barrier always remains the relation between the fractional part of the day which expresses necessary labor and the entire working day. It can only move within those boundaries." (8)
Hence in the long run, the rise in the rate of surplus-value cannot stop the tendential fall of the rate of profit. What to the capitalist appears to be the cure, makes capitalism sicker. Confronted with a falling rate of profit, the incentive for the capitalist to lower the individual value of his product below the social value, becomes even greater. In doing so, he further reduces living labor in production, of which sv is but a part.
The decline of living labor in production means ever less of it sets in motion ever more past labor. The commodity contains ever less value, and the part of that value that represents the consumption of past labor continuously tends to grow in relation to new, living labor. That also means that more and more past labor is required to add living labor, the source of surplus-value. Ever more capital is needed to set productive forces in motion; the treshold for capital-formation is continuously raised. Where that treshold is not met, productive forces that might be employed when the treshold was lower, remain paralyzed.
But while technification (or the rise in the ‘organic composition of capital’ –occ-, the ratio past labor/living labor) in production slows down the creation of exchange value, it also cheapens the commodities needed for the next round of production like all others. So this next round will require relatively less value than the previous one. We have already seen that the cheapening of consumer goods decreases the relative value of the wages (even when they buy more use-values) and so increases relative surplus-value. The cheapening of producer goods (or constant capital) does not directly create more value for capital but by reducing the need for value also counter-acts the impact of the rising occ on the profit-rate. Still, exchange value must grow, even if production costs fall. Capitalism is production for profit and profit “expresses the increase of value which the total capital receives at the end of the processes of production and circulation over and above the value it possessed before this process of production, when it entered into it” (9) The value of the capital advanced must increase, that is the goal of the whole undertaking. The devaluation of constant capital is a cost-saver for the capitalists who must buy it, but for those who sell it, since it expresses the fact that their production required less living labor, it means that the source of their profit has shrunk. The capital advanced for their production incurs a loss, its rate of profit falls and, by the logic of the market, the tendential equalisation of the rate of profit spreads its loss over the entire economy (10).
Real domination means productivity-growth based on the reduction of the snlt in production, on a relative reduction of the creation of new value. The same process explains why, to set in motion additional labor power, more past labor is required; why the treshold of capital is continuously raised. In today’s capitalism, these ‘instep costs’ not only involve production costs –indeed, the latter tendentially decline relative to other costs. For cars they have shrunk to less than 60% of the total cost of the product (compared to 85% in 1925), for semi-conductors to 14% . Huge marketing expenditures are necessary to compete in today’s world. A company like Nike pays considerably more to the celebrities who appear in its commercials than to the workers who actually make their shoes. These unproductive instep costs also include –via taxation- a share of the many faux frais which capitalism must incur to maintain its grip over society. The rising treshold thus implies a tendency to growing concentration of capital.
The fall of the rate of profit on the one hand and the rising treshold for capital formation on the other, make crises a necessity for the continuation of capitalist accumulation. Crises make existing capitals lose their value and while this is disastrous for them, this devalorization also mean that the value of the productive forces, especially constant capital, falls in relation the value created by their productive consumption. Crises therefore restore the rate of profit and thus the conditions for a new round of accumulation.
That is why the tendential fall of the rate of profit takes a cyclical form rather than being a linear progression that takes capitalism to a critical point x at which accumulation becomes impossible. It therefore doesn’t explain why a crisis must at some point become a global breakdown of the capitalist economy, the more so since it does not affect all capitals equally. Competition on the market affects a redistribution of surplus value, which rewards the stronger competitors, those with a higher than average capacity to bring the individual value of their product under the market value, with surplus profits. Crises therefore affect the weaker competitors first and their collapse strengthens the stronger ones which can gobble them up at a bargain price and take over their market-share.
But the tendential decline of surplus-value creation in production is not the only way in which the conflict within the value-form between exchange-value and use-value creates obstacles to the accumulation of capital.
How the contradiction affects the realization of value
The accumulation of capital is a process of self-expansion in which surplus-value is produced and then realized in such a way that it produces more surplus-value. Marx analyzed, mainly in the second volume of Capital, how this cycle of self-expansion works. Not surprisingly, it is the only part of his theory which received praise from bourgeois economists (11) who saw in it a demonstration that a well-managed capitalism can grow forever. But not all Marxists agreed with him. Rosa Luxemburg claimed that capitalism could only expand if it realized the surplus-value destined for expansion outside capitalism, on an extra-capitalist market. Her basic confusion was that she transposed the realization-problem of the individual capitalist to capital as a whole. In order to use his surplus-value to expand his production, the individual capitalist cannot consume it all himself; he must sell it in order to transform it into money to buy new producer goods and new labor power. He needs an outside-buyer. That would not be the case however, if he would have produced himself all the producer and consumer goods he needed for his expanded reproduction. That is the case for the total capital. Its surplus-value contains all the elements it needs to expand. It possesses them already and therefore does not need an outside-buyer perse; what it needs is their smooth circulation within capitalism. It needs money to grow at a pace that keeps it in balance with the growth of the value it circulates.
However, Marx analysis of expanded reproduction, rather than proving that capitalism can grow ad infinitum, leads to the conclusion that this expansion is dependent on the establishment of several balances, proportionalities in production and circulation, whose disruption impedes accumulation. These balances are achieved through the operation of the law of value, through the mutual determination of production and the market (12). Their disruption is a constant possibility yet the tendency to equilibrium is constant too, as long as capitalist development and the law of value are in harmony, as long as exchange-value and use-values work in tandem. The more real domination develops, the less that is the case. The exponential growth of use-values makes the realization of the exchange-value they contain, increasingly problematic. “The self-realization of capital becomes more difficult to the extent that it has already been realized”. (13)
I will briefly examine the three balances that are crucial to the accumulation of capital:
1: between sectors of production.
There is a balance needed between any sector of production and the rest of the economy but the symbiotic development can be examined the clearest when we divide capitalist production in a Department I (the production of producer goods) and Department II (the production of consumer goods). For the total capital to grow, a balance between them is necessary, not only in exchange value but also in use-values: “The transformation of one portion of the product's value back into capital, the entry of another part into the individual consumption of the capitalist and working classes, forms a movement within the value of the product in which the total capital has resulted; and this movement is not only a replacement of values, but a replacement of materials, and is therefore conditioned not just by the mutual relations of the value components of the social product but equally by their use-values, their material shape." (14)
If Dep.I produces more constant capital than it and Dep II need for their expanded reproduction, it is stuck with an unsaleable residue. The value that went into its production is wasted, for the capitalist as well as for the total capital. Likewise the expansion of Dep II is bound by the demand from Dep I. This doesn’t mean that they must grow at the same rate. Given the technification (the growth of the occ), in real domination, Dep I must grow faster than Dep II, and the relative part of its surplus value that is realized within that same department thus grows likewise. The market realizes this dynamic balance, by punishing overproduction with devalorization, and rewarding investment in undercapitalized markets. By moving capital around, by allocating labor power.
But under real domination, with the hunt for surplus-profit through technification in the driver’s seat, a distortion takes place. Capitalists begin to expand as if there was no limit to their market. It is true that the tendency to do so existed already under formal domination. “ It makes its appearance as soon as the immediate purpose of production is to produce as much surplus-value as possible, as soon as the exchange-value of the product becomes the deciding factor. But this inherent tendency of capitalist production does not become adequately realized – it does not become indispensable, and that also means technologically indispensable- until the specific mode of capitalist production and hence the real subsumption of labour under capital has become a reality.” Now, “instead of the scale of production being controlled by existing needs, the quantity of products made is determined by the constantly increasing scale of production dictated by the mode of production itself .”(15)
The more it develops, the more wasteful capitalism becomes. How and why do capitalists ignore what the market tells them? They can do so only within limits of course, which are proscribed by the size of their surplus profits. Capitalists raise their occ and with it, their productive capacity, for the surplus-profit they obtain when they lower the individual value of their product under the market-value. They can absorb some overproduction and still stay ahead. And their competitors are forced to do the same for mere self-preservation.
How does that affect the balance between the departments? Surplus-profits are obtained through technification. Its greater inherent capacity for technological change gives Dep.I an advantage. Innovations tend to flow from Dep.I to Dep.II. This edge already is a source of surplus-profit and thereby a cause of over-accumulation in Dep I. But the main reason that Dep.I is driven to over-accumulation under real domination is that competition forces capitalists to buy new technology that raises productivity, even if the machines they are using are far from used up. These machines have transferred only a part of their value into new commodities yet lose all their remaining value. Marx called this ‘moral depreciation’. For capital as a whole, it is not really different from overproduction. The more the transition to real domination progressed, the more this moral depreciation became a massive phenomenon, accelerating in times of fast-paced technological change. For instance, in recent decades, the power of computer chips has quadrupled roughly every 3 years, which means that companies, in order to stay competitive, have to replace their computer-systems regularly, long before they are worn out. The balance between the departments of production established by the market increasingly violates the balance required by their sound, symbiotic development.
2. between productive and unproductive consumption.
Productive demand is finite. It does not automatically grow because productive capacity grows. If, for instance, the productive capacity of a knife producer increases, while everyone else’s remains the same, the knife producer either overproduces, or gets new customers at the expense of other producers, or finds new markets, but neither of the latter two options “depends on his good will; nor on the mere existence of an increased quantity of knives”. And if all other capitals accumulate at the same rate as the knife-producer, “it would not follow from this that they would need even one percent more knives, because their demand for knives isn't connected at all with the expansion of their own product, nor with their increased capacity to buy knives." (16)
Productive demand is the demand for producer goods (constant capital) and for the consumer goods workers need to maintain their labor power. The finality of the latter is the clearest. The continuous decline of the value of the commodities that define the value of labor power made it possible to increase the mass of these commodities, and the way real domination changed society and thus needs, made that also necessary. But they still remain a limited quantity, not so much defined by the productive capacity then by what still are the basic human needs: shelter, food, health care etc. There is no reason for the capitalist to pay the worker more than that, not if he can find another worker willing to work for no more than the value of labor power. The capitalists making consumer goods would like the demand of all workers to rise above the value of their labor power, but none of them is willing to set the good example at the expense of his own profit. Quite the contrary. His impulse is to drive the wage under the value of labor power. His impulse is to raise his productivity, make more with less living labor, thereby constraining the growth of the productive demand for consumer goods.
At the same time, that increases the growth of demand for constant capital. This implies also a growing trade within Dep. I, making it less dependent on the demand of Dep.II for the realization of its surplus- value. Still, this does not mean that there are no limits to the growth of demand for constant capital. Exchange value remains tied to use-value, and thus to the final consumer, no matter by how many steps it is separated from him in the increasingly complex production system. "Constant capital is never produced for its own sake but solely because more of it is needed in spheres of production whose products go into individual consumption." (17). So, despite moral depreciation, use-values’ exponential growth becomes an obstacle to the realization of the exchange-value produced in Dep.I as well. “The more productivity develops, the more it[capitalism] finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest." (18)
But the potential demand for commodities that are unproductively consumed, is infinite. Only imagination imposes a limit on the commodification of desires and there’s always a desire for more arms and more luxury, for more status-symbols. Furthermore, the more capitalist society develops, the more it develops a need for all sorts of unproductive labor and thereby a growing market for unproductive consumption. But nobody would deny that the capital advanced to produce the goods to meet the needs of bureaucrats, policemen and the poor who stand no change at ever being employed but still demand to survive, comes out of the taxation of the rest of the economy. Out of the total surplus-value. It thus can hardly be seen as contributing to the accumulation of the total capital. For the determination of the exchange value of a commodity, the questions, what its specific use-value is and by whom it is consumed for what purpose, are irrelevant. But when looking at the accumulation of the total capital, they become crucial. "If accumulation is to take place, part of the surplus product must be transformed into capital. But short of a miracle, only those things can be transformed into capital which are utilisable in the labour process (i.e. the means of production), and in addition such articles which are suitable for the maintenance of the worker (i.e. the means of subsistence). (…)In a word, surplus-value is only convertible into capital because the surplus product whose value it is, already contains the material constituents of new capital."(19)
Still, unproductive consumption is “absolutely necessary for a mode of production which creates wealth for the non-producer and which therefore must provide that wealth in forms which permit the acquisition only by those who enjoy.” (20) Not all value can be reinvested, given the finality of productive demand. Accumulation requires that a portion of the value created takes the form of use-values specifically designed for the enjoyment of the rich. With productivity rising continuously, the surplus product grows continuously, and the part of that surplus product that is unproductively consumed, can grow too. And it must, so that the surplus-value created in its production is realized and can re-enter, as money that may be productively invested, the bloodstream of capital. But once again, a balance is required, both in exchange value and in use-values. The growth of unproductive consumption is bound by the growth of surplus-value production and thereby by the growth of productive consumption. Therefore it cannot compensate for a decline of the latter. Less productive consumption means less surplus-value production and thus less surplus-value available for unproductive consumption.
There is, in theory, an ideal balance possible between productive and unproductive consumption, as there is between Dep.I and Dep.II. Market forces tendentially establish them but in both cases, real domination lead to a tendentially growing imbalance. We have seen earlier how the hunt for surplus-profit created a structural over-accumulation of producer goods, a growing waste of value. Today, the industrial corpses all around us show us the reality of moral depreciation, of the instability of value.
The over-expansion of unproductive consumption is also a hallmark of real domination. Since the transition towards it began, we have seen a constant expansion of the ‘public sector’ (not only in absolute size but also as part of the national economy) which is, not entirely but largely, unproductive. It consumes an ever larger part of the total value but, for the most part, does not create any. What we also see is that capitalists must spend an ever larger part of their budget on expenses (marketing, insurance etc) which do not add value to the commodity but must be incalculated in their price. Real domination requires ever more unproductive costs, to manage the obstacles it itself creates.
The transition to real domination is not only an expansion, extending the realm of value and absorbing the whole world into it, it is also a process of expulsion of living labor from production. As it integrates, it throws out. Today it has thrown out more than two billion potential workers from the labor market. The unproductive cost that comes with managing this excess population, preventing social explosions, pandemics etc, constantly grows. And that’s but a small part of the total unproductive cost that capitalism must spend on controlling, punishing, isolating, lullebying, deceiving, guarding, shooting, destroying and so on. The more the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value exacerbates, the more the tendential fall of the profit-rate and finality of productive consumption come to the fore, the more capitalism must spend unproductively, to maintain its grip on society.
3. Between money and all other commodities.
“A commodity conceals the contradiction of use-value and exchange-value. The contradiction develops further (..) and manifests itself in the duplication of the commodity into commodity and money.”(21)
This duplication began when money became the middleman in the circulation of goods, when the exchange of commodities C-C became C-M-C. The total value of production now took the form of commodities and money, the general, universal commodity representing exchange value against all others commodities. This duplication does not mean a duplication of value. Money is not a source of value but its representation. The value of money in circulation is identical to the value of the commodities in circulation, as is shown by the fact that, when its quantity increases faster than the latter, money devaluates and inflation results.
Society reproduces itself through a cycle of C-M-C, which is also, when we take a different starting point, a cycle of M-C-M. That is what accumulation is all about: money is transformed in productive commodities in order to become (more) money again. In C-M-C money serves only as an agent of exchange and remains constantly enclosed in the circulation of commodities, while commodities are being withdrawn from it and consumed. But in M-C-M money is no longer the means but an end in itself. It becomes clear that it is something more than an instrument of circulation, that it can step outside of it and acquire a seemingly independent existence as a store of value. That it is not only a general commodity that mediates exchange but also a particular commodity that can be withdrawn from circulation like any other.
But why doesn’t it lose its value when it is uncoupled from its circulation, since, as mere paper, or today not even that, it does not have any value of its own? The answer is that the total value of a capitalist economy consists not only of the value in circulation but also of financial capital that is, in essence, latent productive capital that at some later point transforms back into productive commodities. Because, seen over a longer period, it is formative of new value, it continues to represent real value even though it has momentary turned its back to the circulation of value. That latent productive capital is absolutely necessary for the expanded reproduction –imagine a capitalism without savings or credit!- and its size must become ever larger under real domination, given the increase of the occ, of the scale of production and of the treshhold of capital formation.
There is, again in theory, an ideal balance possible between money on the one hand, and the value in circulation plus the value of latent productive capital on the other. In practice, it has rarely been achieved. Its original form, precious metal, constrained money’s unbalanced growth yet made its quantity dependent on the output of the gold- and silver mines instead of the needs of value-circulation. Fiat-money, with a ‘value’ set by the state, removed this externally imposed discipline on money-creation but made it also quasi-inevitable that it would grow unbalanced, that the state would try to solve its problems by throwing money at them. But the market punishes that by devalorizing money. The potential of inflation to wreck an economy has by now been experienced so many times that it hardly needs to be explained in detail.
But the imbalance is not only created by excessive growth of money in circulation. The money in the hoard can also grow far beyond the real value of the latent productive capacity of the economy. That is what happens when the fall of the rate of profit, the structural overproduction of technology, the exhaustion of productive demand and the growing weight of unproductive consumption, set up the conditions for ‘a perfect storm’.
The first phase of the storm is a massive creation of fictitious capital. In the cycle of capital, the phase C-M, the transformation of commodities into money, must always go on. The owner of the commodities, be it technology or consumer goods or labor power, cannot choose not to sell this year. But in that same cycle, the phase M-C, the transformation of money into commodities, must not go on. Money can stay money. Park its value in the hoard. It appears “the imperishable commodity”, and the more other commodities show how perishable their value it is, the more desirable it becomes.
As a particular commodity, competing with all others for the total demand, money has the inherent advantage, because it "satisfies every need, in so far as it can be exchanged for the desired object of every need, regardless of any particularity. The commodity possesses this property only through the mediation of money. Money possesses it directly in relation to all commodities, hence in relation to the whole world of wealth, to wealth as such." (22)
The more a fall of the general rate of profit combines with an exhaustion of productive demand, the fewer the chances to transform money into commodities and become more money as a result. So the incentive to accomplish M-C falls. More M stays M. The incentive to convert commodities into pure exchange value is stronger than the incentive to reconvert exchange value into use values, and thereby depresses the productive demand further. The growing demand for financial assets pushes their prices up, which seems to confirm not only that money is an imperishable commodity but also that its value can grow on its own, which further increases demand for them.
The first to be hurt by this are the weakest competitors, therefore money flows away from them, towards the center of the economic system. The latter’s increasing global nature accelerates the trend. Stephen Roach, the chief-economist at Morgan Stanley estimated in 2004 that 80% of the net-savings of the world flowed to the US (23). Where it was more than welcome. The way in which the American and British financial sector in particular invented new financial ‘commodities’ and inflated their prices, thereby accommodating the demand for refuge of global capital, has been sufficiently documented elsewhere (24). This has been very profitable for them. But you didn’t have to be a Marxist to see that the vertiginous growth of the ‘value’ of financial capital, at a pace far above the expansion of the real economy, was due for a reality-check.
Thus begins the second phase of the storm, the implosion of the bubble. The value in the hoard appears not to be so imperishable after all. The lack of production and realization of new value exposes its disfunctionality as latent productive capital. The more the contradiction develops, the more it must devalorize. The existing value ‘parked’ in the hoard, cannot maintain itself as value. The capitalist class today is having the same kind of discussions as in the 1930’s. ‘We must swim against the deflationary tide and prop up demand so that growth of the real economy restores confidence in the hoard! But we can do this only by creating debts that will crush us!’ There’s truth to both sides of that argument. And there’s no solution to it. Because the incentive to accomplish M-C cannot be forced. Government-spending cannot raise the rate of profit, it cannot invent productive demand. The incentive to seek refuge from productive investment into the hoard cannot be stopped. Any reflation, to the extent it is successful, reflates the bubble.
That leads to the third phase of the storm.
The metabolism between developed capitalism and its environment
Capitalism did not grow in a lab. No clear picture can be drawn of its development and present state without taking into account the metabolism of capitalism with the non-capitalist world in which it was born, as well as the metabolism between developed capitalism and the underdeveloped parts of the world.
The initial relation can be boiled down to one word: expropriation. In order to produce surplus-value, capital needed resources. To have free access to them, they needed to be commodified, they had to become constant and variable capital. The feudal womb from which capitalism came, had to be destroyed. This process was a very brutal one. Raw materials were plundered. Independent producers were robbed of their means of production to force them to become proletarians. The history of this process, Marx noted, “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (25). He called it “primitive accumulation” because, logically, and roughly also historically, it precedes real capitalist accumulation, based on the production of surplus value, and makes the latter possible. He saw it as a crutch capitalism needed to get on its feet, after which it could do without.
However, primitive accumulation, in the sense of obtaining value from other sources than surplus-value, never ended. Plunder did not go out of fashion because of capitalism’s self-expansion, since it’s an excellent tonic against the tendential fall of the profit-rate. Capitalism’s morals haven’t changed. It has been estimated that the plunder of rubber and human resources in Congo, organized by the Belgian king Leopold II in the late 19th century, cost the lives of 10 million people. Today, no more rubber is extracted in Congo, but there are still important mineral resources, whose plunder, and the wars it engenders, again costs the lives of millions.
Capitalism interacted with the non-capitalist world not through expropriation alone but also through exchange. Because of its superior productivity, the exchange was always to its advantage. This is also true for the exchange between developed capitalism and its underdeveloped parts, between capital with a high occ and high productivity-growth, and capital with a low occ and low productivity-growth. The exchange yields a surplus-profit to the former because "there is competition with commodities produced in countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value (..) Just as a manufacturer who employs a new invention before it becomes generally used, undersells his competitors and yet sells his commodity above its individual value (..). He thus secures a surplus-profit." (26)
But real domination, and the technification of society that comes with it, ineluctably creates a tendency towards increasing intra-trade between developed capitals. The more technified society becomes, the more the use-values it needs are themselves technified, products of a complex production process; and consequently the less the products, first of non-capitalist producers, and later also of capitalist production with a low occ, fit into its market. So under real domination the metabolism between developed capitalism and non-capitalist/low occ-capitalist production tendentially falls and thus becomes less effective in counter-acting the fall of the rate of profit, while also losing significance as a source of demand.
But real domination causes another ineluctable tendency that has the opposite effect. It implies an ever widening extension of the scale of production which brings with it an ever greater reach of the law of value. The reach went inward, commodifying everything, finding in all sorts of social practices a source of value-production, and it went outward, to the farthest corners of the earth. This movement of extension in itself counteracts capitalism’s contradictions, because the exertion engages developed capitalism with its surroundings, increasing the metabolism.
But while ineluctable as a tendency, the extension of capitalism’s scale ran into several obstacles. First, logically, and historically, was the lack of development of capitalist production itself and in particular of its means of transportation and communication (mtc). The development of the latter (from railways to the internet) has always been a decisive factor in phases of accelerated scale-extension and thus of increased metabolism. Second, there is the intervention of state power, obstructing the law of value. As long as the scale-extension was such that the vast majority of production was destined for the domestic market, protectionism made a lot of sense for those countries where the conditions for an industrial take-off were present. It certainly helps to understand how the US and Germany could become the leading industrial countries by the end of the 19th century. But once the scale-enhancement has reached the point that the domestic market is insufficient for the national capital, that companies become so large and productive that they need a broad international market to realize their surplus-value, protectionism becomes counter-productive (still, after all its negative experience with it, capitalism is not immunized against its creeping return. When it does, it will signal a flight forward, a step towards war). Third, scale-extension requires money to expand with it, able to function on an international scale: an international currency. At several points in capitalism’s history, the narrow basis of money (precious metals) or its arbitrary growth and thus instability (fiat-money) prevented the technological potential of scale-extension from being realized. Fourth, there are the physical limits of the planet. These limits are not completely rigid: technological progress allows for the more efficient use of existing finite resources. But the more they are expanded, the more difficult it becomes to expand them further, the more marginal their expansion is in relation to the system’s needs. When the whole world operates on the base of the law of value, no virgin territory can be invented for capital to plunder and for the law of value to penetrate and establish the metabolism that counteracts capitalism’s contradictions.
There is, in the end, nothing capitalism can do against that fourth obstacle, though at several points in its history it was able to make considerable progress in overcoming the first three. That was most notably the case in the period following the Second World War. With the dollar as an expansive yet stable international currency, with the sharp reduction of protectionism in the vast dollar-economy, and with the costs of the mtc falling steeply when new technological applications, held back by the war, flowed through the economy, an extension of scale was accomplished which activated the factors counter-acting capitalism’s contradictions and thereby produced, for more than a quarter of a century, the strongest growth-figures capitalism had ever known.
What has been called “globalization” was another such confluence of political and technological factors which widened the terrain for developed capital and thereby softened its contradictions. The collapse of the Russian bloc and the removal of other obstacles to free trade on the one hand, and the spread of information-technology and the fall of mtc-costs which it helped to bring about, on the other, rekindled the metabolism. It did so mainly by creating an unprecedented potential for combining the technology and production methods of developed capitalism with labor power whose value is determined by the living conditions in underdeveloped countries. This raised the rate of surplus- value both directly, and indirectly for other capitals, by lowering the value of the commodities their workers need and thus raising relative sv, and thereby counter-acted the tendential fall of the rate of profit. Thus a large part of Fordist production (assembly-line work) moved to previously underdeveloped parts of the world. The industry that remained in the developed countries moved towards “post-Fordism” (with automation, rather than mechanical technology, at the nexus of production). Given the chronic overcapacity of the world economy since the end of the post-WWII boom, and its drag on the profit-rate, the hunt for surplus-profit directed capital away from Fordism’s focus on increasing the volume of production, towards seeking a new relative scarcity by producing new commodities (producer and consumer goods), that give it a monopolistic or semi-monopolistic market-position and thus a surplus-profit. Developed capital became increasingly dependent on this way of obtaining surplus-value. Even though such market-positions are temporary, a brisk pace of technological innovation, or of market-campaigns that transform a shoe into an “Air Jordan,” assure the continuity of the competitive advantage.
There have been earlier moments in which the same focus on conquering semi-monopolistic market-positions has been striking, most notably around the turn of the 20th century and in the 1920’s, two periods in which the contradictions of capital were also maturing. As in the past decade, it was made possible by a fast pace of technological innovation and of concentration of capital, and made necessary by the threat of overcapacity and of a falling rate of profit.
These were also times in which technological change provided the impetus for an extension of scale. Every such period goes through two phases: a first one, in which the spread of new production methods rekindles the metabolism and creates ample opportunities for surplus-profits whose origin lies in the growth of surplus-value production the metabolism makes possible; and a second one, in which the use of the new production methods is homogenized and the metabolism is consequently reduced. It was the homogenization of the Fordist production process in developed capitalism, for instance, which brought the post-WWII boom to a halt and made overcapacity and a falling rate of profit reemerge.
The same technological change that created the opportunities for surplus-profit in the era of “globalization,” exacerbated capitalism’s contradictions. In the automated factory, living labor, the source of surplus value, is greatly reduced. The fast pace of innovation accelerates moral depreciation, the hidden overproduction of constant capital. Nowhere are these trends more striking than in the most emblematic sector of post-Fordist production: digital commodities. There is no doubt that software and other information goods play a crucial and ever growing role in the creation of use-values today. But, although they may yield high profits for the capitals that produce them, they create very little exchange-value for the total capital. What Marx wrote about machines: “however young and full of life the machine may be, its value is no longer determined by the necessary labour-time actually objectified in it, but by the labour-time necessary to reproduce either it or a better machine” (27) is also true for them. Since the snlt required to reproduce them (to copy them) is close to nothing, they tend to devalorize rapidly and thus contain very little surplus-value. The profits made with their sale are surplus-profits, resulting from monopoly positions, protected by patents and copyrights, which have been greatly expanded in recent decades (Microsoft takes out about 3000 patents a year) and which are imposed on the market by the power of the state.
Software therefore clearly expresses the absurdity of the perpetuation of the value-form. On the one hand, it potentially raises productivity and the versatility of production and thus real wealth to hitherto undreamed of heights, on the other, it makes exchange-value, capitalist wealth, decline. On the one hand, it is a means to obtain surplus-profits, enforced by the state rather than the market, and on the other, because of its social nature and its almost valueless reproducibility, it resists commodification and invites sharing; diffusion no longer based on the value-form.
In recent years, we have seen a generalization of the myriad applications of information technology throughout the globalized chain of production. So in this period of extension too, possibly the last important one in the history of capitalism, the phase of homogenization has begun, facing capitalism once again with its insoluble contradictions.
Crisis, war and revolution
No capitalist wants to see his capital lose its value. But in trying to avoid that fate by lowering the individual value of his product beneath its social value, he brings it closer. We have seen that the total capital can only maintain its value by valorizing. It cannot stop accumulating. It needs to reproduce itself and grow in the process … or devalorize. Inevitably, the upward curve of the growth of existing capital meets the downward curve of the growth of creation and productive realization of new value. Then crisis becomes necessary to restore the conditions for accumulation. The larger the size of existing capital relative to new value creation, the more devalorization is required and thus the deeper the crisis must be. Real domination inevitably leads to the point where the size of existing capital is so great that crisis alone cannot accomplish the necessary devalorization.
Theoretically it always can, since, in theory, there is no floor beneath which the value of constant and variable capital cannot sink, as long as it’s above zero. So it must be able to sink to a point where expanded reproduction becomes profitable again. But in the real world, it can’t. The minimal needs of the working class to remain viable as variable capital, the minimal needs of society to remain viable, are a floor that resists further devalorization. The deeper the crisis, the more capitalists suffer, the more the working class suffers, the more social tensions rise. The instability of value translates itself into the instability of society. The urge to stop the bleeding, to break the spiral and to start a reverse dynamic going becomes irresistible. To the extent that it still can, the capitalist state tends to act against the deflationary trend by pumping money into the economy so as to stimulate demand and shore up profit-rates.
To the extent that it is successful, it is sabotaging the crisis mechanism that the accumulation process needs to heal itself. Or rather, it stretches it out; it shoves it into the future. Fictitious capital is used to stem devalorization, but all that new fictitious capital in its turn lays claim to future profits. If the economy can’t provide them, the inclination grows to use industrial power for military goals, to forcefully take elsewhere the surplus-value it cannot create, in order to meet the claims of its capital and prevent its collapse. This fits very well with the need to control the turbulence in society with nationalism and the fixation of social anger on a common enemy.
So the development of real domination at some point quite “naturally” leads to war, if capitalism is in a position to impose it on society. This war is in the first place waged for plunder but at the same time becomes functionally necessary for the continuation of the value based economy. It must finish off what the crisis started. So it becomes an integral part of the accumulation cycle. That doesn’t mean that war is a mechanical response to the need for devalorization, that the latter alone determines when and where war breaks out, how long it lasts or how devastating it is. History is not a clockwork mechanism. Wars are not monocausal, but the present article is not the place to examine their complexity. Nevertheless, the theoretical conclusion that the development of real domination leads to a point where the crisis alone cannot restore the conditions for accumulation, corresponds to the reality of the world wars of the 20th century.
Wars, of course, were nothing new. Capitalism waged revolutionary wars and wars of conquest, sometimes both at the same time. But never had they been such orgies of self-destruction. Never had capitalism cannibalized itself, globally and with industrial efficacy. Never was there so much value destroyed. Regardless of the intentions and pathologies of the warmongers, that was the function wars rendered for the accumulation process. Hundreds of millions died, so that value could live.
World War One can therefore be seen as the manifestation of a new historical framework for the reproduction of society. One in which, at irregular intervals, a combination of crisis and war is needed to cleanse the system. This new period has been termed “decadence” (28). For the working class it means that choosing for capitalism (trusting it, allying with it, integrating into it) in the end means choosing suicide. With the onset of decadence, the gap between the positive and the negative critique of capitalism becomes unbridgeable.
By definition, wars are an enormous loss of value for the total capital. But that’s what they need to be for the accumulation process. This does not mean that any war necessarily restores the conditions for accumulation. It does so only to the extent that it has the same effect as crisis, only more so. War devalorizes capital by destroying it, thereby eliminating its claims on future profits, restoring a balance between the claims of existing capital and actual value creation. In that regard, World War II was much more effective than World War I, which was one of the reasons why the post-WWII boom lasted so long. That its end did not immediately trigger a global economic breakdown cannot be explained by state-capitalist intervention and the massive creation of fictitious capital alone, although these helped to postpone the hour of reckoning. But the main reason why it could be postponed was “globalization” and its beneficial impact on the rate of profit and the growth of productive demand. This was not enough however to restore the global growth rate, which plummeted in the early 1970’s and has never recovered (29). Meanwhile, the growth of fictitious capital has accelerated ever since. In this decade, the imbalance between money as a general commodity, circulating other commodities, and money as a particular commodity, hoarded for its claim on future value, has grown to grotesque proportions. It has been estimated that the former represents only 2% of money transactions on any given day. (30) All the rest is money traded for its own sake, that is, for its expected capacity to grow in value by claiming its share of surplus value yet to be produced. So the few trillions of dollars, euros and other currencies that evaporated since the collapse of the American housing bubble triggered the return of the crisis, represent only a small fraction of the capitalist wealth that still must disappear for the restoration of the conditions for accumulation.
So once again, capitalism is on a path towards collapse and/or war. But the future will not re-enact the past. I am not predicting World War III. What I do predict is that devalorization will continue and worsen. How the capitalist class, and more importantly, how the working class will react to that, is not a given. But the capitalist class really doesn’t have much choice, except in the ways and means it employs to try to keep its grip on society. The working class does have a choice. It can do nothing and cling to the irrational hope that in the end things will somehow work themselves out. Or it can take its future into its own hands and finally end the rule of the value-form over society.
The time to think of revolution is now.
Note: IP received a letter from comrades in Berlin regarding this article. Sander's reply may be read here
1. Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin edition), p.197-198.
2. Idem, p.212
3. Idem, p.704-705.
4. Marx, Capital vol.1, (Penguin edition) p.656
5. Marx, Results of the immediate production, addendum in Capital, vol.1, p.1024
6. Marx saw the labor power needed to bring the commodity into the reach of the consumer as an extension of production into the phase of circulation, and thus adding value to the commodity and creating sv for capital.
7. Marx, Grundrisse, p.706
8. Idem, p.340
9. Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63,Third Chapter. Capital and Profit, pt.6
10. Or, in other words, surplus-profit. More on the process of the equalization of the rate of profit in "The Roots of Capitalist Crisis part 3: From Decline to Collapse, Internationalist Perspective 32-33. The tendential fall of the rate of profit is one of the most contested analyses of Marx. It seems counter-intuitive: Increasing productivity through technological innovation means more profit for the capitalist, so why shouldn’t it also mean that for capitalism? The answer is that the interests of individual capitalists and those of the total capital, the value-system, often conflict. The irrationality of capitalism is the sum of countless rational decisions by capitalists. The “proof” that the tendential fall of the rate of profit a mere red herring was supposedly delivered by the Okishio-theorem, which came to the opposite conclusion from Marx’s. I know little of mathematics,but I know that any such scheme can only be as good as its assumptions. Okishio assumed that the same commodities have the same price before and after production. He took it as a given that their value is stable while Marx’s point was precisely that it falls. So Okishio’s conclusion and starting point were the same. More on this in: Kliman: Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, chapter 7, Lexington Books 2007
11. According to Paul Samuelson, “economists of all schools can agree that Karl Marx did make one stellar contribution” (with his analysis of expanded reproduction). (Samuelson, Economics (McGraw Hill, 10th edition), p.865.
12. See Marx, Capital, vol. 3, (New World Paperbacks), chapter 10, p191
13. Marx, Grundrisse, p.340
14. Marx, Capital, vol.2 (Penguin) p.470
15. Marx, Results… op.cit. p.1037
16. Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, vol.3, (Progress ed) p.118
17. Marx, Capital, vol.3, p. 245
18. Marx, Capital, vol.3, p.305
19. Marx, Capital,vol.1, p.726-727
20. Marx, Results…, p 1046
21. Marx, Theories…, vol. 3, p.88
22. Marx, Grundrisse, p.218
23. Stephen Roach: Economic Armageddon Predicted. Boston Herald, November 23, 2004
24. Amongst others, by: Peter Gowan, ‘Crisis in the Heartland’, in New left Review 55.
25. Capital, vol.1, p. 875.
26. Capital, vol.3, p. 238
27. Capital, vol. 1, p. 528
28. This is not a perfect term, since it is usually associated with amorality and in Marxist politics with the position that capitalism reaches a point at which it can no longer develop its productive forces. We, by contrast think that they have developed considerably during capitalism’s decadence, since what makes them develop, the hunt for surplus-profit, has only intensified. To name the new framework, some prefer the term “era of retrogression,” others “permanent crisis.” The latter term is in my view not a good choice, since, by its very nature, no crisis is permanent. But more important than the choice of a word is the recognition that a new phase, with stark choices for the world, and for the working class in particular, had opened.
29. The average per capita worldwide growth rate was 2.9% in 1951-1973 and 1.6% in 1974-2003.(Angus Maddison’s annual data)
30. See: Bernard Lietaer, The Future of Money, Random House 2002.
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