Capitalism – where Marx was right and wrong

Jonathan Portes is a leading mainstream Keynesian economist. Formerly head of the British economic think-tank, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, he is now senior fellow and professor of Economics and Public Policy, Kings College, London.  Late last year Portes wrote a short book on Capitalism: 50 ideas you really need to know.

Some of the points in that book were repeated up in Portes’ article in the centre-left British journal, The New Statesman, entitled ‘What Marx got right’. This sounds promising from such an eminent mainstream ‘centre-left’ economist.  However, it soon becomes clear that what Marx got right was not much, and mostly he got things wrong – according to Portes.

Portes starts with defining a capitalist. “Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.  So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.”

But for Marx, you are not a capitalist if you do not get your income predominantly from surplus-value (profit or dividends, interest and rent).  And only a very tiny percentage of people of working age do.  Indeed, Marxist economist Simon Mohun has shown that less than 2% of income earners in the US fit that bill.  Nearly 99% of us have to work (sell our labour power) for a living.  Even if some of us get some dividends, or rent, or interest from savings, we cannot live off that alone.  Yes, we workers ‘interact’ in the capitalist system but only through the exploitation of our value-creating (for capital) labour power.  We are not a ‘full participant’ in capitalism, except in that sense.

Portes goes on to tell us that capitalism is constrained by laws and the state on our behalf: “property rights are rarely unconstrained…. This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society.

However, the idea that the state just arbitrates between capitalists and between capitalists and workers to ensure a ‘level playing field’ is an illusion.  The state needs to control outright conflict between classes and individuals (over property rights), but its primary role is to deliver the needs of the ruling elite (“the executive committee of the ruling class” – Marx).  In the case of capitalism, that means the interests of capital and the owners of the means of production.

But what did Marx get right?, according to Portes.  “Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too, does society.”

Yes, social relations are determined by the mode of production – although, for Marx, labour and ‘capital’ only exist as real social categories in the capitalist mode of production.  ‘Capital’ is not just the physical means of production or fixed assets, as Portes implies and as mainstream economics thinks. For Marx, it is a specific social relation that reveals the form and content of exploitation of labour under capitalism.

Portes goes on: “The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.”   Yes, Marx saw capitalism as a dynamic mode of production that would drive up the productivity of labour through a rise in the organic composition of capital, as never seen before (contrary to Piketty’s view that Marx expected productivity to fall to zero) 

But Portes significantly leaves out the other side of the coin of capitalism, namely that, while competition may drive capitalists to invest and boost the productivity of labour, there is a contradiction between the ‘dynamism’ of capitalism and private profit.  A rising organic composition of capital tends to lead to a fall in the profitability of capital. Capitalism is not a permanently ‘progressive mode of production’, as Portes implies, but is flawed and ultimately fails at the door of sustaining profitability.

Portes says that Marx’s critique of capitalism is based on the idea that the wages of labour would be driven to subsistence levels and this is where he waswrong. “Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right.”

Portes claims that “so far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.”  Really? What about this gap in the advanced economies?

Actually Marx never had a subsistence theory of wages.  On the contrary, he criticised fiercely such a view, as expressed by reactionary ‘classical’ economist Thomas Malthus and socialist Ferdinand Lassalle.  Unfortunately, Portes accepts this common distortion of Marx’s view on the relation between wages and profits.

What Marx said was that wages cannot eat up all productivity, because profits must be made for capital.  But the degree of the distribution between profits and wages is not fixed by some ‘iron law’ but is determined by the class struggle between workers and capitalists.  That is a question of distribution of the value created in production.  But it is in the production of value that Marx finds the key contradiction of the capitalist mode of production: namely between the productivity of labour and the profitability of capital.

Portes says, because Marx got it wrong when he thought wages would be driven to subsistence levels, “in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.”  He goes on to argue that “thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing.”

Well, the system may not have ‘collapsed’, but it is subject to regular and recurring crises of production, and sometimes long periods of economic depression that sap the incomes, employment and future of billions.  And have “workers demands in most advanced capitalist economies” (Portes leaves out the billions in other economies, just as Keynes did) been “satisfied”?  What about the poverty levels in most advanced economies, what about employment conditions, housing, education and health?  What about huge and increasing levels of inequality of wealth and income in ‘most advanced capitalist economies’, let alone globally?

Portes admits that there was huge inequality “in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”.  However, “not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed … after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.”  But this ‘golden era’ of reduced inequality was a short-lived exception, something that the work of Thomas Piketty and others have shown.

Portes knows that after the 1970s inequality rose again but he accepts the argument that “the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year.”  Actually, the reduced level of ‘global inequality’ between countries and between income groups is down solely to ending of poverty for 600m people in China.  Exclude China and global inequality of wealth and income is no better, if not worse, than 50 years ago.  Capitalism has not been a success here.

Portes recognises the rise of China and its phenomenal growth.  His explanation for this appears to be some idea of ‘mixed economy’ capitalism where the state plays a role in constraining unregulated capital. “Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.”  Portes notes that “China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy.”

For Portes, what is wrong with capitalism is not its failure to eliminate poverty or inequality or meet the basic needs of billions in peace and security, as Marx argued.  No, it is excessive consumption. “Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong…. we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. But excessive or endemic ‘consumerism’ is not an issue for the billions in the world or even millions in the UK, Europe or the US – it’s the opposite: the lack of consumption, including ‘social goods’ (public services, health, education, pensions, social care etc).

Portes does recognise that capitalism is not harmoniously dynamic and that it has crises.  However, apparently all that is necessary is to regulate the financial sector properly and all will be well. He “would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.”  But what if “there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system?”  Then we need to “make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.”

But is the explanation of crises under capitalism that go back 150 years or more to be found in the lack of regulation of finance?  Marx had more to say on this with his law of profitability and the role of fictitious capital.  And if Marx was right, ‘better contingency plans’ to ‘regulate’ finance will not be (and have not been) enough to avoid more slumps.

Portes finishes by saying that “There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge.”  But he is vague: “The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.”  Indeed “ just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress.

Portes is implying the need for socialism, namely a collectively-owned and democratically-run economy of super-abundance that eventually ends the ‘economic question’ itself.  That was Marx’s vision too – but it would only be possible by the ending of the capitalist mode of production, not by ‘regulating’ it.

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53 Responses to “Capitalism – where Marx was right and wrong”

  1. Richatd Says:

    For the new statesman to give space for such a prominent attack on Marx shows that both mainstream and Keynesian economists are worried that he is right over a whole range of issues regarding the profit system to which they have no answer.

  2. fosforos17 Says:

    “Portes goes on: “The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.” Yes, Marx saw capitalism as a dynamic mode of production that would drive up the productivity of labour through a rise in the organic composition of capital, as never seen before (contrary to Piketty’s view that Marx expected productivity to fall to zero)

    But Portes significantly leaves out the other side of the coin of capitalism, namely that, while competition may drive capitalists to invest and boost the productivity of labour, there is a contradiction between the ‘dynamism’ of capitalism and private profit.”

    Just as nattering about a “depression” is completely invalidated by the enormously rapid growth of the world’s leading (that’s what “leading” means) capitalist economy, so the nattering about “drive up the productivity of labour through a rise in the organic composition of capital, as never seen before” Is completely invalidated by the fact that capitalist dynamism (and especially that of the leading capitalist power) has resulted not in any increase of productivity but, through its precipitation and constant intensification of the worldwide ecological catastrophe has reduced the NET productivity of global labor “as never seen before.” It is truly spectacular, in fact. Just look at the two extreme sides of the catastrophic extractivist model–Venezuela and “Saudi” Arabia. Or the ambient sickening air quality (workers have to breath as well as eat) in every Chinese metropolis. Or the whole (literally) damned extractivized African continent!

    Sure, Marx demonstrated an internal contradiction in the “abstractly ideal” model of a two-sector capitalist economy–a contradiction that always is “defeated” with each recurring crisis. It is exactly such “defeats” that underlie the real, fatal, contradiction of the real, not “abstractly ideal” capitalist mode of production–the contradiction between its indispensable internal extractivist dynamism and the planetary ecological conditions for the perpetuation of civilized human economic life.

    It is also very peculiar (not to say dumb) to call Malthus “reactionary” because he was the very first person (can you name another?) to propound the essential scientific principle that the “laws” governing human population size are exactly the same ecological laws governing the population size of all other animal species? Do you really want to label as “reactionary” the crucial basis of Darwin’s model of evolution and thus of all modern biology and ecology! Or is the (literally–it was the universal belief, including Marx’s). fantasy that humans are the “exceptional” species, exempt from the rules governing everyone else, just like (not coincidentally) the American booboisie calls themselves the “exceptional” country.

    And just one parthian shot. No official statistics can ever point to whether the organic composition of capital is rising or falling for the obvious reason that statistics are in terms of monetary values but Marx defines the Organic Composition as a “value” composition only insofar as that ratio reflects the “technical composition” of capital–a term for which Marx offers no quantifiable definition and which official statistics never portray because they make no distinction, cannot possibly make any distinction, between productive labor and the capital employing it versus unproductive labor and the capital employing it.

    • Virgens Kamikazes Says:

      “It is also very peculiar (not to say dumb) to call Malthus “reactionary” because he was the very first person (can you name another?) to propound the essential scientific principle that the “laws” governing human population size are exactly the same ecological laws governing the population size of all other animal species? Do you really want to label as “reactionary” the crucial basis of Darwin’s model of evolution and thus of all modern biology and ecology!”

      You surely didn’t read Malthus. This is not his theory. Malthus never read and probably never knew about Charles Darwin. In fact, he died in 1834 — 25 years BEFORE the first publishing of “The Origin of Species”. Malthus’ theory is pseudo-science, it has nothing to do with the truth.

      “Just as nattering about a “depression” is completely invalidated by the enormously rapid growth of the world’s leading (that’s what “leading” means) capitalist economy, so the nattering about “drive up the productivity of labour through a rise in the organic composition of capital, as never seen before” Is completely invalidated by the fact that capitalist dynamism (and especially that of the leading capitalist power) has resulted not in any increase of productivity but, through its precipitation and constant intensification of the worldwide ecological catastrophe has reduced the NET productivity of global labor “as never seen before.” It is truly spectacular, in fact. Just look at the two extreme sides of the catastrophic extractivist model–Venezuela and “Saudi” Arabia. Or the ambient sickening air quality (workers have to breath as well as eat) in every Chinese metropolis. Or the whole (literally) damned extractivized African continent!”

      The USA is in the middle of a depression. The numbers are clear. A depression doesn’t mean eternal recession, but just a new, lower normal in terms of growth. The USA has been growing an average 2.0% yoy in nominal GDP since 2009. But much of this is thanks to its fast population growth — 0.7%, behind only India (1.3%) among the relevant nations. This means per capita GDP in the USA was a mere 1.3% in 2016. And that’s only happening at the cost of the rest of the capitalist world, which is faring a lot worse in order to keep the USA afloat. The USA issues the world fiat currency, it can recall capital from the rest of the world when it needs it.

      Saudi Arabia is doing fine in capitalist terms. Venezuela’s problem is of another nature: since the Revolution, the capitalist class — which controls the chain of distribution of food in the country — has been sieging its own people through a brutal lockout. This lockout fuelled a black market of food, which triggered a huge downward spiral of the Bolivar, creating hyperinflation. Venezuela’s crisis is artificial even in the mainstream economics sense of the word.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        “You surely didn’t read Malthus. This is not his theory. Malthus never read and probably never knew about Charles Darwin. In fact, he died in 1834 — 25 years BEFORE the first publishing of “The Origin of Species”. Malthus’ theory is pseudo-science, it has nothing to do with the truth.”

        You surely understood nothing, since my point was that Malthus was, and by far, the first to propose a social theory that treats human social behavior as essentially animal behavior (Plato did adumbrate such an approach in the Politicos). And you also know nothing about his population theory: it is, simply, that a growing population tends inevitably to increase beyond the ability of its environment to support it. I called this the basis for Darwin’s theory. Why? Because the pressure of population on resources (a situation continually replicated throughout the whole evolutionary history of humans and every other species) challenges the survival (and thus the reproductive potential) of every member of that population. Where do you think the selective pressure that drives Darwinian evolution comes from if not from the repeatedly arising challenges to individual survival of every member of a population?

      • Boffy Says:

        Malthus, as Marx demonstrates was a plagiarist par excellence. As Marx also shows, whenever Malthus did try to engage in original thinking the result was always trivial, confused rubbish.

        So, malthus stole the theory of rent from James Anderson, but where Anderson showed that there was no limit to the ability of agriculture to increase productivity, and thereby to feed an expanding population, Malthus deliberately omits this element from his population theory so as to prove his population theory, which was itself designed to support his contention that the law of falling profits could only be avoided by allowing the feudal landlords, and the state parasites to soak up the surplus production out of rents and taxes, so that the profits could be realised, and capital accumulation, and population growth thereby constrained.

        Unfortunately, Ricardo took on board Malthus’ ridiculous population theory, and used it along with his theory of rent and diminishing returns to show that food prices and rents would inevitably rise, leading to a rise in wages and squeeze on profits, which he feared was a “law of nature” which would lead to the end of capitalism as profits disappeared.

        Again, Marx showed that that was nonsense. Not only has history showed as Marx and Anderson said that agricultural production can increase way ahead of any increase in population, but it has also showed that family sizes across the globe fall as income levels rise.

    • SimonH Says:

      Yes Malthus was a reactionary, he made his arguments to attack the notion that you could help the poor. In fact he was a major defender of landlordism ie the feudal holdover. If you want an assessment of Malthus that goes beyond this revisionist nonsense that he was a Prophet of Over-population check out Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler. Not only does it give us the reactionary Malthus but also debunks the idea that over-population is the cause of environmental woes.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        It is an even more dimwitted anachronism to call an early-19th century economist (and friend and correspondent of David Ricardo) a “reactionary” than it would be to call Jeremy Bentham a “radical” (which at least is how Bentham described himself). Nobody can “debunk the idea that over-population is the cause of environmental woes” without “debunking” the general law that for any animal species, including human, continual population growth in a bounded area leads necessarily to population collapse

      • sartesian Says:

        “It is an even more dimwitted anachronism to call an early-19th century economist (and friend and correspondent of David Ricardo) a “reactionary” ”

        Guess that makes market a purveyor of dimwitted anachronisms– see TOSV, Chapter 19; Capital Vol 1, Chapter 25, particularly the choice comments in footnote 6; TOSV, Chapter 9, particularly section 2 where Marx critiques Malthus’ defense of the “MOST REACTIONARY”– Marx’s words– elements of the ruling class;

        Or this from the Grundrisse:

        “Malthus’s theory, which incidentally not his invention, but whose fame he appropriated through the clerical fanaticism with which he propounded it – actually only through the weight he placed on it – is significant in two respects: (1) because he gives brutal expression to the brutal viewpoint of capital; (2) because he asserted the fact of overpopulation in all forms of society. Proved it he has not, for there is nothing more uncritical than his motley compilations from historians and travellers’ descriptions. His conception is altogether false and childish (1) because he regards overpopulation as being of the same kind in all the different historic phases of economic development; does not understand their specific difference, and hence stupidly reduces these very complicated and varying relations to a single relation, two equations, in which the natural reproduction of humanity appears on the one side, and the natural reproduction of edible plants (or means of subsistence) on the other, as two natural series, the former geometric and the latter arithmetic in progression. In this way he transforms the historically distinct relations into an abstract numerical relation, which he has fished purely out of thin air, and which rests neither on natural nor on historical laws. There is allegedly a natural difference between the reproduction of mankind and e.g. grain. This baboon thereby implies that the increase of humanity is a purely natural process, which requires external restraints, checks, to prevent it from proceeding in geometrical progression. This geometrical reproduction is the natural reproduction process of mankind. He would find in history that population proceeds in very different relations, and that overpopulation is likewise a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by limits posited rather by specific conditions of production. As well as restricted numerically. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us! Secondly, restricted according to character. An overpopulation of free Athenians who become transformed into colonists is significantly different from an overpopulation of workers who become transformed into workhouse inmates. Similarly the begging overpopulation which consumes the surplus produce of a monastery is different from that which forms in a factory. It is Malthus who abstracts from these specific historic laws of the movement of population, which are indeed the history of the nature of humanity, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific historic development, with a development of the forces of production determined by humanity’s own process of history. Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain; hence also the geometric method of reproduction corresponding to this natural Malthusian man. Real history thus appears to him in such a way that the reproduction of his natural humanity is not an abstraction from the historic process of real reproduction, but just the contrary, that real reproduction is an application of the Malthusian theory. Hence the inherent conditions of population as well as of overpopulation at every stage of history appear to him as a series of external checks which have prevented the population from developing in the Malthusian form. The conditions in which mankind historically produces and reproduces itself appear as barriers to the reproduction of the Malthusian natural man, who is a Malthusian creature. On the other hand, the production of the necessaries of life – as it is checked, determined by human action – appears as a check which it posits to itself. ”

        And Marx wasn’t alone; Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England certainly identified Malthus as a reactionary, and the so-called theory of population an attack on the working class.

        As for this bit of nonsense from fosforos:

        “Because the pressure of population on resources (a situation continually replicated throughout the whole evolutionary history of humans and every other species) challenges the survival (and thus the reproductive potential) of every member of that population. Where do you think the selective pressure that drives Darwinian evolution comes from if not from the repeatedly arising challenges to individual survival of every member of a population?”

        That’s not the basis of Darwin’s theory; sexual selection cannot be reduced to the struggle for food resources. That’s vulgar Darwinism, applying social Darwinism to Darwin, which goes so well with fosforos’ vulgar marxism.

        Marx of course has a slightly different take, and from the getgo– going all the way back to the German Ideology, IIRC, where he remarks that you can distinguish human beings from animals by any number of things according to your fancy, but that human beings distinguish themselves from animals by making the means of their own subsistence.

        Not a technical difference fosforos, not even close.

        But what do I know? I actually read, and continue to read Marx– in part, because of my disagreements.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        Marx here is at his absolute worst. “This baboon thereby implies that the increase of humanity is a purely natural process,” To insult a serious thinker (the Malthus-Ricardo correspondence is all at a very high and serious level) that way, even in words meant for oneself alone (like the Rohentwurf) is deplorable. But the term chosen for the insult–“baboon”–says everything about the underlying anthropocentrism present in Marx’s “humanism.” If human population increase is not “purely natural” then the impurity must be something supernatural as is the case for all historic “humanisms.” And as for Sartesian’s fantasy that “human beings distinguish themselves from animals by making the means of their own subsistence,” And what do these animals make the “means of their own subsistence” from? Nothing but the natural substance (degraded into consumable “resources”) of this planet–which you might like to know is so far from infinite that it is diminished with each use unless replenished (which humans never do, unlike everybody else) whereas for all animals the quantity of increased population, giving a suitable environment, is directly proportional to the size of the reproducing population, which inevitably tends to render the environment unsuitable to the point of population collapse. As we see all around us today.

      • sartesian Says:

        Should be “guess that makes Marx a purveyor…” Freud, schmeud, as long as you love your mother.

      • SimonH Says:

        Ricardo and Malthus may have been friends but they were far from being in full agreement. As for radicalism, well the founding fathers of America were radical by the standards of their day although these days supporting slavery and genocide among other things would put them squarely in the reactionary camp. Treating human beings purely as animals is the height of being a dimwit. Are you going to ignore the fact that when women get better living standards and education they have a strong tendency to have less children. The over-population apocalypse has been predicted for a long time, yet human beings, not acting purely as animals but applying ever greater improvements in technology and technique has thus far prevented the super-famine. Try reading Too Many People? it’s written by an eco-socialist who runs an eco-socialist blog called Climate and Capitalism. It supports the view point elaborated long ago by Barry Commoner in response to one over-population alarmist ‘Pollution begins in the corporate boardroom not the bedroom’.

    • sartesian Says:

      Marx is at his worst? Well, then he’s at his worst from 1844-1883, for his contempt of Malthus is consistent, sustained, and runs through every single one of his economic manuscripts. When Marx is somehow writing his best and greatest works, he’s somehow simultaneously at his worst in this one area– which is not an insignificant area as Marx is showing how political economy is nothing other than the ideology of a ruling class.

      And forsforos, it’s not my fantasy; the quote is from Marx and Engels (who obviously also at his worse when critiquing Malthus).

      Yes, human beings make the means of their own subsistence from natural substances. But the access to, appropriation of those natural substances is a social function and is not bound, determined by the scarcity or surplus of the natural substances, but by the social development of them– hence the population can rise to 7 billion and not outstrip food resources; hence energy production can grow faster than the population; hence access to new stores of minerals, foods, energy, is developed along with increasing populations.

      Next up, fosforos tells us why the world is running out of petroleum, natural gas, and coal…….. stay tuned for Peak Energy and the Ghost of King Hubbert.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        “Next up, fosforos tells us why the world is running out of petroleum, natural gas, and coal…” The point, for those with eyes to see, is that the world is not “running out” of “fossil” fuels but has already “consumed” so much of them that it is already running out of fresh air, sweet water, topsoil, and oceanic life. Not to mention livable space in many areas. Meanwhile exctractivism continues its deadly march, with Sartesian et.al. in lockstep, toward planetary ecological catastrophe (far worse than “barbarism”).

      • sartesian Says:

        but has already “consumed” so much of them that it is already running out of fresh air, sweet water, topsoil, and oceanic life.

        That is not the result of the growth of the population. That is not the result of your argument about resource pressure; nor is it a result of Malthus claims.

        Do try and stick to your own argument, please.

        I am opposed to fracking; accessing methyl hydrates; strip mining, line mining, etc. but I do not think there are too many people on the planet; that the demand for good living conditions and the maximum welfare for every individual places too much of a strain on resources. Those are the issues you raised; those are the issues pushed by the current group of Malthusians.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        Of course it was not because of population growth–my whole point, my whole argument, is that it is the result of the inner dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, which objectively viewed has long since become the governing form in which the life-process of the human species has proceeded for the last five hundred years or so. As for Malthus, purely as a point of intellectual history I defended, and defend, a powerful thinker who had the respect of Ricardo and Keynes (if not of Marx) and whose basic ecological insight (however inarticulate) expressed the basic “law” underlying Darwinian evolution–as all the denouncers of Darwin have not failed to emphasize.

      • sartesian Says:

        So, you are defending Malthus’ arguments about overpopulation? Or you aren’t supporting Malthus’ arguments about overpopulation?

        So the human animals are overbreeding and overconsuming the limited resources of their bound environment.

        Or the human species social beings are not “overproducting” other human beings, and the limits to the environment are not natural, but are produced, imposed by capitalism?

      • fosforos17 Says:

        Malthus’s arguments are in no way at issue. What is at issue is his basic premise: that human beings are animals and are governed by the natural “laws” of population dynamics valid for ALL animals. It is clear that you do not accept it, because you say “the human species social beings are not “overproducting” other human beings, and the limits to the environment are not natural, but are produced, imposed by capitalism” That the planet is a naturally limited environment is obvious to anyone but a Believing Christian, That capitalism (the capitalist mode of production) is how humans organize their social life is obvious to everyone.. It is therefore just as natural as it is human, because everything human is natural and only natural.The solution is naturally to overcome the limits of the planetary environment through opening to extraterrestrial assistance. Fortunately that assistance is at hand in the form of practically unlimited radiative solar energy–whose wholesale adoption, unfortunately for capital, would wipe out the “value” of the “richest” corporations and kingdoms and states of this social order. Therefore revolution.

      • sartesian Says:

        Uhh……..yeah Malthus’ arguments are at issue; since you made them the issue; you support them; your reintroduce them even when you claim they are not at issue.

        I did not say there are no limits to human existence on this planet. I did say that the limits human beings confront are not natural limits, the limits of the physical make-up of the earth, but are social limits; the limits generated, reproduced by and through the particular conditions of social labor.

        I’m sure it’s gratifying– to the bourgeoisie– to read that capitalism is natural because its human and everything human is natural. The bourgeoisie have been arguing that capitalism is the natural condition of human beings for 200 years.

        But your sophistry is of course, meaningless– feudalism was the natural condition and limit, at one time; and slavery that was a natural condition and limit too; and fascism; and war; and starvation; and plague….

        What bollocks.

        And I just love your solution……extra-terrestialism. That’s just perfect. Go to another planet. I nominate you to lead the way. Don’t worry, we’ll be right behind you, just as soon as we tie u some loose ends over here, and build that big ark so we can take the animals with us.

        I’ll leave the last word to you. I had enough of this close encounter.

    • jlowrie Says:

      Of Malthus Ricardo exclaimed, “Have you seen Mr Malthus book on the measure of value? His arguments appear to me fallacious from beginning to end……those he now uses are delusive and are scarcely to be understood.” Quoted in “David Ricardo:Notes on Malthus’s Measure of Value” (Cambridge 1992).

  3. Virgens Kamikazes Says:

    Mr. Roberts can’t say because he has an academic career at stake, but I can: those vulgar economists are not scientists, they are cheap propagandists and engage in selective ignorance, blatant falsification and plain lies in order to create a narrative that fits their masters’ (the capitalist class) agenda. They are not scientists and their work are worth absolutely nothing.

  4. PJKar Says:

    Mike, (2nd try)

    Thank you for an Interesting and informative essay. But it took you right up to the last sentence to get to the indisputable point that Marx got right:

    “That was Marx’s vision too – but it would only be possible by the ending of the capitalist mode of production.”

    If he only got one thing right in all his myriad of pages that would be it. Somehow I doubt Portes will ever get it,

    One more point from the blog:

    “Portes goes on to tell us that capitalism is constrained by laws and the state on our behalf……”

    Let him tell that to the thousands of people in the US whose property value drops to nothing after a pipeline company decides to run a pipeline next to your property. Same for the fracking companies. It happens all the time here in the US.

    • PJKar Says:

      Hey Mike,

      I see you didn’t post my comment. I’m not sure why but I did not mean to cause you any trouble. I have learned much about economics from your writing here all at zero cost which I appreciate greatly so naturally I deeply regret any problem my comment may have caused you.

      Best regards,

      Paul

  5. Victor Onrust Says:

    “But for Marx, you are not a capitalist if you do not get your income predominantly from surplus-value (profit or dividends, interest and rent).” I always thought that to be capitalist, you had to be an entrepreneur in some way. Others who skim off the surplus, including a lot of shareholders are rentiers. On the other hand higher management, doing the actual decision making are capitalists, although seemingly employed and not owning the capital. Together (with other strata) they form the bourgeoisie. Correct me if I am wrong,

    • fosforos17 Says:

      Marx’s analysis is CLASS analysis. What label you want to apply to a particular individual is irrelevant to everything. A capitalist is an individual whose social existence places it in the role of member of the ruling class of a capitalist society, and the ruling class is quite capable of defining its own membership, thank you.

    • jlowrie Says:

      I would argue that the boards of directors of companies form the most important element of the capitalist class. Remember Marx’s explanation that the capitalist is the bearer of the capitalist relation, i.e. that relation of dominance and servitude that is the concrete relation behind its legal expression as a property relation. We must not confuse juridical categories with real relations of production i.e. who has the power.

      This can readily be understood by examining the nature of slavery. According to their juridical status all slaves would be members of the one class, as being the property of others, but slaves themselves in Ancient Rome possessed slaves, i.e. had power over them, even though this relationship was not codified in law as a property one.
      There is a Roman inscription that I quote somewhat vaguely from memory to the effect that: ”The slaves of the Treasury at Lyon have put up this memorial to their master, the slave X.”

      Roman law distinguishes ‘dominium’ ( property) from possessio, i.e. direct control. This distinction allows us to appreciate the anti-Marxist views of Lenin and co. The means of production in Soviet times may have been codified in law as the property of the people, but ‘possessio’ real control lay very much with the ‘one-man managers’ and the party bosses.

    • Mike Ballard Says:

      The way I see it, there are three basic classes under the social relations of Capital:

      1. The industrial capitalist class, who own the lion’s share of the wealth the workers produce and then sell it (commodify it) into the marketplace thus, making a profit. Finance capitalists own the wealth the working class produces and lends it out in exchange for interest payments.

      2. The working class, who own their skills and sell their skills at the market price to the capitalists in exchange for losing control/ownership of the product of their labour. Amongst the working class are those who produce no wealth, but who, nonetheless, serve to uphold the wages system of bondage. Most of these workers are employed by the political State, an unavoidable expense of class rule. Another category are the unemployed members of the working class, those unable to find a buyer for their skills, what Marx called, “the reserve army of labour”. The unemployed perform the function of creating fear amongst the employed of losing their jobs. Their existence puts downward pressure on the price of skills aka wages and working conditions.

      As for pensions, they are just part of the wealth, the working class has already produced. Most workers are forced into buying shares or bonds in the market to have a way of retiring from selling their labour power.

      3. The landlord class, who own real estate and make their living through its sale or rent.

      4. There are also a large pool of people who sell their skills, independent of an employer, directly to a consumer e.g. doctors, lawyers, prostitutes, and tailors to name but a few.

  6. Edgar Says:

    Portes reminds me why I find Keynesians even more unpalatable then neo-liberals!

    I am actually assuming Michael has taken Portes totally out of context such is the shallowness of Portes’ arguments. Disingenuous doesn’t even begin to describe it!

    • Edgar Says:

      An addition:

      As for the subsistence level theory,

      Marx was closely tied to trade union activism and at numerous debates Marx presented the opposite point of view to the subsistence level argument, which was an idea deep seated in the workers movement at the time. For example Marx pointed out in these debates that the vulgar economists were incorrect to believe that reducing the working day would destroy the economy, Marx actually argued it would do the opposite and he was correct. Marx also vehemently argued against Malthus and history has proved Marx correct on this point.

      Many reactionary ideas have sprung from the subsistence level theory, in that workers believe if they ask for too much it will destroy jobs, incomes etc. Marx was one of the leading theorists to show why this idea was a fallacy and in doing so did great service to the labour movement.

      On workers wages etc Marx advised a pretty pragmatic approach, basically make sure real wages stay consistent, fight for decent working conditions and services but don’t get too carried away because at the end of the day whatever the wage level you are still a wage slave under this system, and the main task is to abolish that social relation.

      That task is as urgent as it ever was I would suggest.

    • jlowrie Says:

      I agree with Edgar: give me von Mises anytime over the liberals. Marx’s theory of ‘impoverishment’ has nothing to do with the level of wages; it means ” Separation of property from labour….labour separated from all means and objects of labour….this complete denudation, purely subjective existence of labour, stripped of all objectivity. Labour as absolute poverty: poverty NOT AS SHORTAGE, but as total exclusion of objective wealth” (Grundrisse Pp 295-296).

      The concentration of capital goes hand in hand with the impoverishment of the labourer. Marx’s theory of the future development of capitalism has proven only too correct, as can readily be seen by the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian peasants and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. It would seem the Chinese and Indian bourgeoisie intend that only 200 or 300 million will remain in the countryside, the rest of the people becoming wage labourers in gigantic metropoles. As a Chinese liberal ‘intellectual’ remarked to me, ”These people are backward. We have to get rid of them. Look how advanced South Korea is ,and it’s got rid of most of its peasants.” I asked him : what is the population of South Korea and how much of its food is imported.? He had no idea.

  7. sartesian Says:

    “What Marx said was that wages cannot eat up all productivity, because profits must be made for capital. But the degree of the distribution between profits and wages is not fixed by some ‘iron law’ but is determined by the class struggle between workers and capitalists. ”

    My problem with this might be a bit different than the usual. Namely, exactly what is it about “productivity” that means increased profits for capital?

    If workers produce 100 pins in an hour in 1830, but 5000 pins in an hour in 1880, exactly how has the productivity, the increase output per hour of pins, improved profitability.

    Certainly, we can point to the pins being arbitraged at their socially necessary value, rather than the producer’s cost price, and aggrandizing portions of surplus value brought to the market by other producers, but that again is an issue of distribution, and is not one of increased profitability of production through extraction of greater rates of surplus value– unless the value of the labor power declines. If we are arguing that increased productivity = increased profitability because greater new value is thrown into the markets with less labor-power, then I think we can pretty much kiss the labor theory of value good-bye.

    Besides the improved productivity of labor a) reducing the cost price such that the cost price + the average rate of profit now transfers some of the total surplus value to the “higher productivity producer or b) leads to the reduction in the wage, and the number of hours necessary to produce values equivalent to the reduce value of the labor power; we have to account for the impact of “productivity” in some other way then the old “relative surplus value” arguments.

    And I think that “way” is in the reduced circulation times, and reduced production times that a) reduce the turnover times, increasing the number of turnovers in any period BUT b) actually lengthen the turnover time of the capital in aggregate as productivity is primarily the result of accumulating and substituting machinery, fixed assets, for human labor-power; and the fixed assets can only transmit their value incrementally, over longer periods of time.

    • marthajpc Says:

      Marx was interested in the productivity of capitalism, which is motived by competition between different capitals, not in resolving capitalism’s fundamental contradictions.

      In volume 1 of Capital Marx limits himself to the analysis and critique of political economy on its own terms (i.e. as a mode of production abstracted from any particular social system and from the colonized world within which a particular capitalist mode of production operates). He knew that the theories of Smith and Ricardo, though, penetrating and “scientific,” could not and would not address the contradictions within the capitalist mode of production as such, because both were blind to the historical, social nature of the object of their analysis. They sought resolution of certain problems (i.e. profit creation) in an idealized free market. Marx’s own labor theory of value is, therefore, specific to the capitalist mode of production as such, and is a tool for identifying and analyzing these contradictions, not for solving them. It’s contrary to Marx’s revolutionary purpose to fear that Marx is contradicting himself when he examines capitals’s attempts to counter basic, (ultimately) irresolvable contradictions in the capitalist mode of production as such. Matters only grows worse when these countervailing efforts are examined within a larger social, global context. Its then that the barbaric, Malthusian side of capitalism–war, geno- and ecocide come into play.

      In this sense only–of limiting the first volume of Capital to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production as such–that the co-author of the Communist Manifesto was “euro-centric.” Marx understood that European merchant capitalism’s colonial system, in undermining traditional modes of production in the Old World, and super-exploiting unpaid “non-capitalist” labor in the New World, provided much of primal accumulation of freed up labor and capital for the development of modern industrial capitalism, which, he noted, came into the world drenched with blood (of Old World peasants and coolies and native Americans and African slaves who, when plentiful enough, were often enough worked to death in New World plantations and mines).

      Trade is an innocuous term. Nevertheless, Marx planned a whole volume on “Trade”. Marx was anything but “euro-centric.

      It’s hardly surprising that Portes presents the 30 year (war boom) golden years of Western capitalism as the golden rule of worker prosperity under capitalism, while saying nothing about the extreme poverty of the better than 80 percent of humanity who also happen to live, employed but mostly unemployed, under capital’s golden law of value–except for singling out those raised out of poverty by the capitalist element of “mixed-economy” China–600 million of them! …not mentioning, of course, those few who, presumably, were raised so high that they joyfully jumped to their death from capitalism’s high tech balconies. Nor did he mention those among the 600 million who, after a year or so of prosperity, returned (running) to what’s left of Chinese socialist villages for restoration their prosperity-drained vitality. But I think Portes’ numbers are somewhat exaggerated.

      Portes is the sort of social imperialist who has been around from before the 30 years World Wars (which they famously funded) and can be taken seriously only to extent that he writes for the Spectator, which is read widely, even by marxists. What is interesting in this whole exchange over a shallow, inane piece of propaganda about what Marx got right and wrong, and worker prosperity under capitalism, is that hardly a word was said about the actual condition of “privileged” workers prospering under austerity at the imperial centers or about the terrorized, pauperized 80 percent of the “workers of the world” who make up the massive reserve army of labor that produces most of the West’s wage goods.

      Even in Capital, volume 1, Marx was less “euro-centric than that.

      • sartesian Says:

        “resolving capital’s fundamental contradictions…”

        is the task of the proletarian revolution by abolishing capitalism.

        The problem with productivity and the notion of relative surplus value is not a fundamental contradiction of capitalism; it is however a contradiction with the labor theory of value. If enhanced productivity, greater output per hour, cannot increase value, then it can only increase the rate of surplus value to the extent that v experiences a decline greater than the total new exchange value thrown into the markets.

        If capital produces 2X the number of commodities with half the labor power, and the total labor time falls proportionately, there is no increase in the rate of surplus value.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        When, oh when, will someone admit that, when the destructive effects which vulgar economists, “bourgeois” and other, so determinedly ignore are accounted for, capitalism has not only NOT increased the net productivity of labor but has in fact reduced it throughout its recent (and perhaps entire) history? Does nobody else recognize the difference between a NET and a GROSS quantity?

      • sartesian Says:

        So, according to forsforos, slave cotton production was more productive than sharecropper, tenant farmer cotton production, which was more productive than the mechanization of Southern agricultural production that started during the Great Depression and continued through WW2 and did away with the sharecropper relations.

        Got it.

      • fosforos17 Says:

        Gee, I haven’t seen that style of argumentation since Uncle Joe laid down his pen. Makes one nostalgic. Not.

      • sartesian Says:

        Your “issue”– of the net “destructive productivity” of capitalism has, and had, exactly nothing to do with the issue originally raised– which was increased productivity in the labor process and the rate of surplus value in the valorization process.

        Sometimes you receive the response you deserve. And you have. Again.

  8. fosforos17 Says:

    you’re welcome to the last word, if that one word is an answer to this question: Is there any animal species, other than homo sap, whose forms of social organization, in your view, are not integral to their natural life processes?

    • Edgar Says:

      The lab rat! Oh and the ant kept in solitary confinement!

      Now you may object and say, but these are captives of humans, to which I would say, exactly the point to think about!!

      I would add just to balance the debate a bit, in Engels attack on Malthus he did finish the attack by saying that a socialist society would better be able to control population numbers etc than the capitalist system!

      • fosforos17 Says:

        “Now you may object and say, but these are captives of humans.” No objection–just that those ain’t species.

      • Edgar Says:

        Ok, it was a bit lateral. To make the point more directly, humans are different to all other animal species in that they can obtain mastery over nature rather than being beholden to it.

        Now this isn’t a partial mastery, for example, cats sit in the shade when it is sunny, but a profound mastery over nature.

        There may be limits to this but I suspect if you are quoting Malthus then you probably think that limit was reached sometime in 1895. Which just goes to show how wrong headed the argument you present is.

        So the question you posed as the last word was:

        a) not related to your arguments above
        b) is the wrong question to ask

      • fosforos17 Says:

        If humans have “mastery over nature” to ANY degree whatsoever, they are separate from nature. “Mastery” is a relationship between DIFFERENT entities. The idea of human “mastery” over nature is indistinguishable from the idea that “man is created in the image of god.” Only a SUPERNATURAL being can have “mastery” over nature. And such beings do not exist.

      • Edgar Says:

        It is not possible to have mastery over something you are separate from.

        Lionel Messi has mastery over a football, by definition he is not separate from it. Well unless he is resting or injured! But you know what I mean.

        Alas I myself do not have mastery over a football, not at least in any way comparable to Messi.

        But I will refine my comment and say mastery of nature in a way profoundly different from any other species. For the humble rabbit has yet to understand, for example, the basic laws that apply to energy and information. And the humble rabbit has not applied any of these laws to transform nature to its purposeful advantage, well not to the profound degree humans have.

        Don’t get me wrong part of me thinks if humans were wiped out tomorrow in some devastating plague and the rabbits etc survived that might be a great thing.

  9. Magpie Says:

    @Michael Roberts

    This chart, from David Ruccio’s blog, nicely complements and extends your productivity and wages chart:

    It goes further back in time (to 1980) and shows wage growth by gender and race in the US.

    I’m very interested on this subject. What is you interpretation of such phenomenon?

  10. NeilW Says:

    Portes is neither leading, nor Keynesian. He’s a Blairite Third Way traveller in the mould of Bill Clinton, et al. A Clinton style neoliberal democrat at best.

  11. Anarcho Says:

    “Actually Marx never had a subsistence theory of wages.”

    Not true — he had one in “The Poverty of Philosophy” and “The Communist Manifesto”. By the time “Capital” was published, he had changed his mind — wages now had a “historical and moral element”

    Also, he is talking about the exchange value of labour — which is not quite the same thing as real wages. The exchange value of labour can drop as real wages rise, etc. Assuming you can determine what exchange value is, which you cannot as it is not measureable (Marx seems to forget it is an abstraction to help understand the dynamics of capitalism and suggests it exists).

    • Edgar Says:

      Marx never had one other than to point out that the capitalist will always try to produce at the lowest possible cost, and that capitalism itself generates conflict, contradiction and idenitifies what those conflicts and contradictions are.

      But the real subsistence theory says that there are definite limits to the living standards and rights of the working population that can never be extended otherwise mass starvation etc will ensue.

      Hence the vulgar economists argued against reducing the working day, believed trade unions were a mortal threat to everyone, the minimum wage would destroy jobs, population increase would be a disaster etc etc etc etc.

      Marx always, but always rejected this view. And history has more than spoken on these issues!

  12. marthajpc Says:

    Sartesian, I think we agree. But you jump to the aggregate rate of profit too soon, where the system’s tendency of the rate of profit to fall is revealed. You seem to conflate the individual with the capitalist class as a whole.

    Where I think we disagree is that I believe that modern finance/industrial capitalism–which came into being in the first place under merchant capitalism with the employment of uprooted agrarian labor for super-exploitation (whole families worked 16 hour days in early satanic mills for gruel and a hovel), in tandem with primal capital accumulation produced by super exploited labor in colonial mines and plantations–cannot maintain itself without continually recreating conditions of primal accumulation which are exogenous to, but incorporated into) the capitalist mode of production, especially in its ex-colonial peripheries, in order to countervail fundamental contradictions manifested in trpf. Marx’s labor theory may not explain how these exogenous destructive economic process apply to capitalist accumulation, but it can help explain why war and coerced labor are increasingly necessary to the existence of the capitalist system.

  13. sartesian Says:

    “cannot maintain itself without continually recreating conditions of primal accumulation which are exogenous to, but incorporated into) the capitalist mode of production, especially in its ex-colonial peripheries, in order to countervail fundamental contradictions manifested in trpf.”

    That’s kind of Rosa’s argument isn’t it, except she omitted the TRPF, because she had no use for it in her critique. That’s a whole other story which we can get into. I just find it problematic to argue that primitive accumulation is “exogenous” — mean growing or originating from OUTSIDE– but at the same time, recreated by capitalism.

    It doesn’t work logically; it doesn’t work that way historically; it doesn’t work that way socially. Capitalism is not reproducing slavery as slavery; capitalism is not reproducing a “commons” in order to precipitate enclosure, no matter what we think of gate communities.

    That’s just part of the problem I have with notions of “permanent primitive accumulation.”

    Does capital have to exploit labor more intensively, drive down the wage when the offsetting tendencies aren’t offsetting enough? Mos def. That’s not primitive accumulation however. There are certain periods that certainly parallel primitive accumulation– the use of slave labor in Germany during WW2— but not every era is an era of WW; not every capitalist formation is automatically the equivalent of Nazi Germany. Might “they” all get there, sooner rather than later? Yes, but it’s the getting there that’s important.

    Does capital tend to drive the wage below the value of the labor power; to drive the wage below the cost of reproduction of the working class. Again, mos def. But we can’t forget when Marx assumes that capitalism compensates living labor at its value, that value, like everything else is an abstraction, made up in reality of the millions of deviations; it’s a average, a socially necessary average, an is a mutable element. Wages may correspond to the value of labor power; and may not; just as prices may correspond to actual values, and if they do on any individual basis, it’s luck, chance, a random distribution.

  14. ucanbpolitical Says:

    This debate need not be so esoteric. Before 2008 the majority of responders to the authoritative social attitudes survey (called the household survey in the US) considered themselves middle class and all the politicians could speak of were the “aspiring middle class”. After 2008 and the financial crash, over 60% of responders suddenly considered themselves working class and the language of the politicians changed. Now they spoke only of “hard working class” families. It takes a recession to wake people up, change attitude, wipe away illusions (attitude) and to reveal how powerless one is without property. Now that the bottom 80% of society, the working class proper, are going to see their living standards fall even further over the next ten years (not to mention life expectancy), that figure will rise further. It takes the unfolding of the crisis of capitalism to not only to redraw class lines but to re-emphasise them. The same process is taking place in the USA. Edgar Hoover had a question inserted into their survey – do you prefer capitalism or socialism? For the first time 18-34 year olds answered socialism. In other words class relations are not an academic question but a question of life. With regard to who are the real capitalists? Jlowrie is quite correct to point out the distinction between ownership and control of capital. The top 10% of society benefit from capitalism, but the biggest group populating this top 10% are senior managers, the direct agents of capital in a modern capitalist economy. On a world scale, excluding management, around 2 million capitalists and their families (net worth in excess of $10 million) employ around 1.8 billion workers. (Sources: Credit Suisse and the International Labour Organisation). Now that sub-prime is exploding in the US and Britain once more we have a choice to either debate or to intervene.

    • sartesian Says:

      I agree, the debate need not be esoteric. I disagree: this discussion has not been esoteric, no more than Michael’s article was esoteric. Not even the discussion of Malthus was esoteric; that’s the meaning of Marx’s critique of political economy– what appears to be esoteric, and concerned with “economics” is in fact ideology– the self-justification of the ruling, dominant class and its mode of production.

      2008 was the eruption of this “non-esoteric-ism.” And as much as it may have forced more to self-identify as working class, it has mobilized the bourgeoisie to obscure the meaning of working class precisely through using that identification to mobilize parties and movements like Syriza, Podemos, Occupy, and……..Corbyn…and, on the other side, Trump, Brexit, Le Pen.

      So… I don’t see any down side to confronting the “more esoteric” elements of the “Marx, non-Marx, anti-Marx” arguments.

  15. Ron Rice Says:

    I suspect this is a typo: “Actually, the reduced level of ‘global inequality’ between countries and between income groups is down solely to ending of poverty for 600m people in China.” Should the world “down” be “due” instead?

  16. fosforos17 Says:

    And why should anyone think that a term as fuzzy and undefined as “global inequality” means anything at all?

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