Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Masters Of Money - Marx - Part 2

But, the claim, put forward by the Left Keynesians, under the guise of Marxism, that crises are caused by this low level of wages, or under consumption caused by them, is equally false, equally remote from what Marx actually said. The argument they put forward is essentially this. Capitalism is forced to keep workers wages low, and to reduce them where possible, in order to maximise profits. But, that means that workers do not have enough money to buy the things that they, as workers, produce for the capitalist, and which he seeks to sell. Marx never made this argument. What Marx and Engels actually said was,

There would be absolute over-production of capital as soon as additional capital for purposes of capitalist production = 0. The purpose of capitalist production, however, is self-expansion of capital, i.e., appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit. As soon as capital would, therefore, have grown in such a ratio to the labouring population that neither the absolute working-time supplied by this population, nor the relative surplus working-time, could be expanded any further (this last would not be feasible at any rate in the case when the demand for labour were so strong that there were a tendency for wages to rise); at a point, therefore, when the increased capital produced just as much, or even less, surplus-value than it did before its increase, there would be absolute over-production of capital; i.e., the increased capital C + ΔC would produce no more, or even less, profit than capital C before its expansion by ΔC.”

Orthodox economics describes this as a situation where the Marginal Cost of Production i.e. the cost of producing 1 additional unit of output, is greater than the Marginal Revenue (price) obtained by selling that additional unit. In other words, it is not a matter that workers do not have enough wages to buy the available commodities. In fact, as can be seen from the above, the situation that is being described is one where Capital has expanded i.e. large numbers of the available workforce have been employed, even to the point whereby wages have risen significantly. The problem is that they do not have sufficient funds, or else choose not, to buy the available commodities, at prices that will enable Capital to replace the capital consumed in their production. In fact, it is quite possible that it is because wages and living standards have risen, that workers decide not to spend more of their money on simply buying more of the commodities that make up their normal consumption. If Capital wants to persuade them to buy more of these commodities, it may have to reduce their prices, even below their values. In other words, Marx understood clearly the principle of price elasticity of demand. That is that at different levels of demand, the amount by which price has to be reduced, to bring about a given increase in demand, varies. It also varies from one type of commodity to another. Marx writes,

It would seem, then, that there is on the side of demand a certain magnitude of definite social wants which require for their satisfaction a definite quantity of a commodity on the market. But quantitatively, the definite social wants are very elastic and changing. Their fixedness is only apparent. If the means of subsistence were cheaper, or money-wages higher, the labourers would buy more of them, and a greater social need would arise for them, leaving aside the paupers, etc., whose demand is even below the narrowest limits of their physical wants. On the other hand, if cotton were cheaper, for example, the capitalists' demand for it would increase, more additional capital would be thrown into the cotton industry, etc.” (Capital Vol III p188)

Elsewhere, Marx points out that where workers wages rise, they may buy more Sheffield cutlery, but he says, their demand for such cutlery will not rise in the same proportion as their wages, because each workers' family only requires a certain amount of cutlery, however cheap it might be, or however well paid they are!

Suppose, workers' consumption of food is relatively high, as is their consumption of motor cars. If the price of food falls by 10%, workers' might increase their demand for food by 8%, because food is a basic requirement for consumption. However, if the price of cars falls by 10%, workers' demand for cars might only increase by 2%. In either case, the higher workers' existing living standards, the more they already consume of these commodities, the more likely they are to require prices to be reduced by greater percentages to encourage them to spend their wages, than if their wages and living standards are low. The more Capital expands, the higher its demand for labour-power, and the higher tends to be the level of wages and living standards.

This is completely different to workers not having high enough wages to buy the available goods on the market. Its possible that if prices fell far enough, Capitalists could sell all of their surplus production. The point is, however, having done so, could they then buy in all of the necessary materials and so on, to continue production at the same level!

This can be seen quite easily. Take the example, of the Sinclair C5. The company built a number of these vehicles, which consumed a certain quantity of Constant capital in the form of materials required to produce it, machines required to process that materials, buildings in which these activities were undertaken, and in Variable Capital, in the shape of assorted workers who performed the necessary labour. Having done so, they found that they could not sell them. It wasn't because workers wages were to low to buy them. It was because no one really wanted them! The company possibly could have got rid of them if it reduced the price enough, but that does not solve the problem.

Suppose, the costs of the Constant Capital comes to £10,000, whilst the cost of Variable Capital comes to £5,000, in order to produce 15 C5's. That means the Cost of producing each machine is £1,000. Normally, the capitalist would expect to make a profit on top of this. However, suppose that having put them on sale at £1,000, there are no takers. The company reduces the price to £800, and manage to sell 3 of them. They reduce the price further to £700 and sell another 4. In order to sell the rest they have to reduce the price to £400. They have made £8,400 from the sale. But, in order to produce another 15, they are still faced with having to pay out £10,000 for Constant Capital, because there is no reason their suppliers will sell their commodities to them for less than their value, and similarly they will still have to pay out £5,000 in wages.

Marx describes this kind of situation. The Exchange Value of commodities is determined by the socially necessary labour-time required for their production. But, this is not just a question of the commodity being produced using the average productivity of labour, and the average level of machinery etc. it also requires that there is sufficient demand for all of the output produced at this average level of efficiency. This is an application of the Law of Value, which has operated throughout Man's History, whereby available social labour-time is allocated according to what society determines as being its requirements. Under capitalism, because this is done via the market, and involves Capitalists producing commodities ahead of them being consumed, the question of whether social labour-time has been so allocated can only be determined after the event i.e. if these produced commodities find a market.

If they do not, then Marx says, the labour-time used in their production was not socially necessary. The labour-time used in the production of the Constant Capital, which was used in the production of these commodities, along with the labour-power that was used to transform this Constant Capital into the end commodity, was wasted. It has to be subtracted from the labour-time actually used up, in calculating the actual value of the commodities produced. Because, Capitalism, unlike every other form of production in Man's history produces commodities without knowing if they are wanted or not, it inevitably leads to a perpetual overproduction and under production of commodities, which means that market prices for these commodities are perpetually either above or below their Price of Production (Price of production is the Cost of production of the commodity plus the average rate of profit). By this means, the perpetual shortages and gluts that Capitalism entails, for different commodities, are rationed out.

Marx calls these crises, which affect individual Capitals, partial crises of overproduction. But, for the same reasons such crises can break out as general crises of overproduction. That is not a crisis caused, as in the case of the C5's, because workers/consumers simply do not want a particular commodity at all, but because they do not want to buy any more, of a range of these commodities, at prices that enable Capital to increase profits. Yet, this is an inevitable consequence of each Capital trying to revolutionise production to reduce its costs, and in consequence of Capital as a whole massively expanding production. Think of Marx's example of the Sheffield Cutlery. The Sheffield manufacturers each wanted to reduce their costs, because in doing so, they could make bigger profits, and grab a bigger market share. So, they introduced new machines, and techniques that could double or treble their output, and reduce the individual cost of each knife, fork and spoon. But, because they all did this, the output of cutlery doubled and trebled, and the Price of Production of cutlery fell along with it, so the advantage that each firm thought it was gaining was lost anyway. But, with the output of cutlery now trebled and even with more workers employed in the economy, at higher wages, there is only so much of this cutlery that the workers want to buy. The raising in productivity that increased the output might have reduced the Price of Production of the cutlery by half, which reduces the market price by the same amount. Yet, even at this lower price, there might only be a demand for twice the previous output. So, the market price has to fall below the price of production to clear the market.

So long as this applies only to one or a few industries such situations are only a problem for the Capitalists that own those firms. But, if that industry dominates the economy as textiles did in the early part of the 19th Century in Britain, or if this situation affects a large number of industries, then instead of the crisis being a partial crisis of overproduction, it becomes a generalised crisis of overproduction. Marx describes precisely that condition of the textile industry in Britain in the 1840's. The first economic crisis of Capitalism occurred in 1825. It was no coincidence that it happened then, because it coincided with the application on a large scale of machine industry, and of steam power. In the 1840's, however, this was magnified. As the productive power of the British textile industry soared, its ability to produce vast amounts of cheap cloth soared with it. On the back of that, Britain flooded the world market with its textiles, and the glut was such that it took three years to clear. British textile manufacturers could not sell their output on global markets at any price. As a consequence, they saw no point in employing workers, or buying cotton and wool to produce cloth they could not sell.

Workers were thrown out of work, and starved in their tens of thousands. Far more than the Depression of the 1930's, it demonstrated the falsity of the ideas of market economics, and of Say's Law, that markets clear if left to their own devices. Faced with starvation, workers were prepared to work at any wage, but, even so, employers were not prepared to pay them even those wages, when they had no possibility of selling their output on world markets. As with Irish workers and peasants during the famine, workers sought to emigrate, whilst employers, worried about a shortage of Labour, when the crisis ended, tried to prevent them. The employers brought the dragoons and military into northern towns and cities to put down demonstrations by starving workers.

So, the crisis of overproduction has nothing to do with under consumption by workers. Even Marxists misinterpret what Marx and Engels said in this regard. They said,

Over-production of capital, not of individual commodities — although over-production of capital always includes over-production of commodities — is therefore simply over-accumulation of capital...

The same occurs when there is an over-production of commodities, when markets are overstocked. Since the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit, and since it accomplishes this purpose by methods which adapt the mass of production to the scale of production, not vice versa, a rift must continually ensue between the limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism and a production which forever tends to exceed this immanent barrier. Furthermore, capital consists of commodities, and therefore over-production of capital implies over-production of commodities. Hence the peculiar phenomenon of economists who deny over-production of commodities, admitting over-production of capital.”

The under consumptionists, and the opponents of the under consumptionists interpret this as meaning that the market is limited in its dimensions because of the limited means of workers. But, that is not what it means. In principle, the market could be expanded whatever the level of wages and consumption of workers. For example, Capitalists could simply increase their own consumption out of their increased profits. In practice, that is not a solution, because the tiny number of Capitalists even with their grossly exaggerated forms of consumption cannot continue to consume more and more of society's output. More importantly, such unproductive consumption is at odds with the very nature of Capitalism. As Marx puts it,

It will never do, therefore, to represent capitalist production as something which it is not, namely as production whose immediate purpose is enjoyment or the manufacture of the means of enjoyment for the capitalist. This would be overlooking its specific character, which is revealed in all its inner essence.”

Moreover, the other form of expenditure by Capitalists – Productive Consumption – itself is constrained within limits determined by the level of final demand. Huge increases in productivity in cotton production, might reduce its price significantly, and encourage textile manufacturers to buy more of it. But, if those textile manufacturers feel that there is a limit to how much cloth they can sell, there is no reason why they will buy more cotton, or machines to spin it etc.

In other words, what Marx and Engels are saying is not that the market is limited by the available money in workers pockets to spend, but that it is limited by how much of any of these things people actually want to buy. You can persuade them to buy more, but only reducing the price by bigger and bigger amounts. There is a simple solution to this. Again, it involves the application of the Law of Value. Marx in Capital describes the application of the Law of Value in relation to Robinson Crusoe,

Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting... In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.”

This is what all societies do in one form or another. Capitalism does it via the market, and for the reasons set out above, it only knows whether it has allocated the available labour-time appropriately if the commodities produced can be sold at their prices of production. Where they cannot, it means that some resources have to be withdrawn from producing those commodities, and diverted to producing some other type of commodity, the demand for which has not been satisfied. Assuming that is, that any such commodity, or set of commodities exists! At certain times, society has little problem in this regard. New inventions, or new applications of old inventions not only create new ways of producing – creating a demand from manufacturers for these new machines etc – but also lead to the development of whole ranges of new types of commodities, and even industries based upon them. So, when massively increased output has satisfied the demand for many of the established range of commodities, and Capital cannot employ more workers, more capital in this production profitably, it is able to continue expanding, continue creating additional Surplus Value, by instead investing in production of these new types of commodity.

Provided there are enough of these new commodities, and new industries to soak up the surplus capital, then the problem of overproduction disappears. Consumption of the old commodities continues, but instead of continually expanding beyond what can be consumed at prices that create profits, it remains at lower levels. Meanwhile, the production of the new commodities, employs workers, creates a demand for new types of machines, for raw materials, and so on. The incomes generated, in turn create demand both for the new commodities, and for the old commodities.

These periods where Capital is able to move into these new types of production are those periods of Long Wave Boom. In each of these periods, such as towards the end of the 19th Century, when whole new industries developed that employed masses of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, or in the post-war period when new industries in chemicals, electronics and automobiles developed, or like now when whole new industries in micro-electronics, bio-technology, space science, genetics and so on are developing, not only do we see a growth of these new industries, but we see a growth also of trade on the back of it, an expansion of the employment of labour, and frequently the development of whole new geographic areas, as the leading edge of where this development occurs.

But, by the same token, it is those periods outside the Long Wave Boom, the periods of Long Wave downturn, where there is a shortage of new types of commodities, new types of industries to be developed, which mean that this overproduction cannot be resolved by Capital expanding into new areas. It is then that the crisis of overproduction becomes chronic, and leads to high and persistent levels of unemployment, which in turn reduces the demand for commodities, and which creates the impression of under consumption.

In Part 3, I will look at how all of this relates to the current situation.

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