In the third and final part of my review of last week’s Capital.150 London symposium on the modern relevance of Marx’s Capital Volume One 150 years after it was published, I want to cover some of the presentations not mentioned so far. This is going to be a quick compendium that won’t do justice to the presenters’ papers or to the debates on them. But at least you can follow up by reading the papers that I shall refer to.
In the session on imperialism, the some old debates among Marxists were revived. As far as I understood the argument presented by Marcelo Dias Carcanholo from the Federal University Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro Brazil (Carcanholo PP) , Marcelo reckoned the ‘dependency’ was deepening, driven by ‘unequal exchange’ in trade with imperialism and significant ‘super-exploitation’ of labour in the peripheral economies. This makes it increasingly difficult for national capitalist forces to engage the working class in the peripheral economies in class collaboration. Both ‘dependency’ (of ‘colonial’ economies on imperialist ones) and ‘super-exploitation’ of labour (in the south by the north) as the main generator of profit, are controversial issues and the debate continues on the nature of modern imperialist exploitation and its implications for class struggle. Raquel Varela from Lisbon New University argued that Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation as expounded in Volume One had new angles to take on modern capitalism – existing still in the poorest areas of so-called emerging economies like India, but Marx’s theory of exploitation of labour by capital was now dominant globally.
Tony Norfield, author of the best-selling book, The City, on London’s role in imperialism spoke on Das Kapital, finance, and imperialism. Tony seemed to be arguing that Marx’s law of value had “evolved” in the modern world of imperialism and finance capital and now “financial markets show more directly what the capitalist world economy allows” and so “equity markets, bond yields and FX markets are now the key market levers”, not the profitability of capital in the non-financial sectors. That’s because the large tech corporations are really financial companies and use their financial power to appropriate more surplus value than they generate from production. But that also means there is less profit available for productive investment.
In my view, Tony’s thesis suggests that capitalism has changed to the point that it is no longer the capitalism of Volume One. This seems to me to destroy the relevance of Marx’s value theory in understanding the laws of motion of capitalism. For me, stock and bond market prices reflect the vicissitudes of fictitious capital (speculative capital), but because this capital is fictitious, it will collapse when the productive sectors collapse with insufficient profits- and that is Marx’s point (and also the point of Carchedi’s paper – see my part one post,https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/capital-150-part-one-measuring-the-past-to-gauge-the-future/).
So, far from stock prices being the best measure of capitalist health, surely they usually reflect speculative bubbles in assets that are eventually revealed to have no or less value? For example, currently stock market prices are daily registering new highs and yet economic growth remains low and investment in productive capital flat. It is not that Marx’s law of value should give way to stock prices, but that fictitious capital will eventually give way to value. Maybe Tony meant that Marxists should take into the account the huge increase in fictitious capital and its impact of profitability. If so, then some authors, including myself, have done so by either adding in financial assets to productive assets as part of the net worth of corporations (Debt matters) or by deducting fictitious profits from total profits.
The final sessions of the symposium covered the future of capital and the future of labour in 21st century capitalism. Alex Callinicos author of Deciphering Capital: Marx’s Capital and Its Destiny reminded us that the current debate over the relevance of Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall started among Marxists just as soon as the publication of Volume 3 of Capital. For example, there was a debate over its relevance between Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci, with the latter defending the law. Hannah Holleman in her contribution brought to our attention the big new contradiction in capitalist accumulation that Marx had only noted in Capital: the destruction and pollution of the planet by the rapacious drive for profit, which has now culminated in global warming and climate change, possibly irreversibly.
Eduardo Motta Albuquerque of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte Brazil showed that Marx in Volume One also paid close attention to technological developments in 19th century capitalism as a guide to new waves of development (Albuquerque Marx Technology Divide). Machines in England led to the destruction of Indian industry; with industries at the centre of imperialism and agriculture at the periphery. The expansion of rail transport was accompanied by the global expansion of capital and the tentacles of imperialism. “In sum: each technological revolution can reshape the international division of labour”. So what will be those new “starting points” in the 21st century?
And Fred Moseley, a longstanding Marxist economist and author of the recent book Money and Totality, updated his view of the relevance of the rate of profit for the future of US capitalism. Fred argued that a key element for the growth of profitability was the relation between productive and unproductive labour, the latter being that part of labour not generating value or surplus value but only appropriating some of it. These sectors were finance, government and other non-productive industries, but also supervisory and management workers in productive sectors.
The increasing appropriation of surplus value by these sectors sounds the death knell of economic resurgence by the US economy as it restricts profit for productive investment. Only a destruction of capital in these sectors could release more value for productive investment (Moseley PP). For more on this, see the excellent new paper by Lefteris Tsoulfidis and Dimitris Paitaridis (MPRA_paper_81542).
The final Wednesday afternoon session at the Capital.150 symposium in London considered what would happen to labour in modern capitalism and how Marx envisaged society and labour would change under communism, Tithi Bhattacharya looked at the nature of modern labour in “Social reproduction theory: conceiving capital as social relation”. This produced a vigorous debate on whether social reproduction theory (SRT), around the issues of the exploitation of women at home and capitalist pressures on working class families, was a useful addition to Marx’s labour power theory in Volume One or not.
Lucia Pradella from King’s College looked at the impact of imperialism and migration on the power of labour and workers’ struggles. Imperialism has created new disasters on world labour and a massive increase in the migration from the poorer to richer areas. But just as in the 19th century with the migration of Irish people to work in British cities, that produced dangerous prejudices and divisions, it also opened up positive opportunities for global solidarity – something Marx also strived for in his day between English and Irish immigrant workers. Beverly Silver from John Hopkins University considered Marx’s general law of capital accumulation and the making and remaking of the global reserve army of labour.
Finally, top Marxist scholar, Michael Heinrich analysed the nature of Communism as expounded in Marx’s Capital and other works. His was a powerful account of the fundamental basis of a Communist society: ‘from each according to his/her abilities; to each according to their need’. Can this ever be achieved in the 21st century? Michael tolds us the story of somebody visiting Marx at his home in his later years. He asked Marx, in effect, ‘what must we do?’ Marx paused before replying and then said just one word: “Struggle!”.