Best books of 2017

Last year we had some seminal and important books on Marxist economics including: Anwar Shaikh’s lifetime compilation, Capitalism: competition, conflict and crises (that I dip into on a regular basis); Fred Moseley’s Money and Totality, a masterful defence of Marx’s value theory; Francois Chesnais’ Finance Capital Today, that recounts the current trends in modern finance; as well as major contributions from Tony Norfield (ttps://www.versobooks.com/books/2457-the-city,) and John Smith (Imperialism in the 21st century).

It’s difficult to compete with these in 2017.  However, this year commemorated 150 years since Marx published Volume One of Capital, so there were a few important books that everybody should get.

In my view, Joseph Choonara’s A Readers Guide to Capital was the clearest and concise of all the various ‘readers’ or video lectures that are available or were published this year.  Choonara takes the reader through each chapter of Volume One with some clarifying analysis and relevant comment to help.  Choonara says that “It is designed to be read in parallel with Capital itself, with each chapter of this book consulted either before or after digesting the relevant sections of Marx’s work.”  The aim, unlike that of Harvey’s more comprehensive approach in his video lectures, is “instead to dwell on those areas that are the most vital to an overall understanding of the work and those that most often confuse, drawing on my own experience teaching Capital to left-wing audiences of students and workers over the past decade”.  For, in Choonara’s view, Marx attempted in Capital to see capitalism from the point of view of labour and aimed for a working-class audience.  Capital clearly does the former, but whether it achieved its aim of reaching working class readers is more doubtful.  Choonara’s guide can help here.

I certainly got more out of Choonara’s reader than I did from William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, this year’s winner of the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize.  Using Marx’s motif of Dante’s inferno to describe the iniquities of capitalism, Roberts presents us with a ‘political theory of capital’.  I’m not sure of the value of this approach.  As David Harvey says in his review of the book, “My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works.”  And the inferno motif has little to say about Marx’s economic theory, except to accept Michael Heinrich’s (incorrect in my view) interpretation of Marx’s value theory.

If you want Marxist economic theory, there is the publication by Rick Kuhn of essays by Henryk Grossman on economic dynamics, Sismondi’s theory of crises and on the various trends in bourgeois economics.  It helps us realise how perceptive Marx’s analysis of capitalism is compared to the bourgeois mainstream and the utopian socialists. Marx’s analysis destroys the idea that all can be explained by exchange and markets.  You have to delve beneath the surface to the process of production, in particular to the production of value (use value and exchange value).  As Grossman puts it: “Marx emphasises the decisive importance of the production process, regarded not merely as a process of valorisation but at the same time a labour process… when the production process is regarded as a mere valorisation process – as in classical theory – it has all the characteristics of hoarding, becomes lost in abstraction and is no longer capable of grasping the real economic process.” p156.

Despite the power of Marx’s analysis, it is still the ideas of Keynes that dominate the thinking of heterodox economists in opposing the mainstream.  And this is no accident.  In an excellent book, Geoff Mann from Simon Fraser University presents a sophisticated explanation of Keynes’ dominance in the labour and leftist movements.  In his, In the Long run we are dead, Geoff argues that Keynes rules because he offers a third way between socialist revolution and barbarism, i.e. the end of civilisation as ‘we (actually the bourgeois like Keynes) know it’. This appealed (and still appeals) to the leaders of the labour movement and ‘liberals’ wanting change.  Revolution is risky and we could all go down with it.  Mann: “the Left wants democracy without populism, it wants transformational politics without the risks of transformation; it wants revolution without revolutionaries”. (p21).

What Mann argues is that Keynesian economics dominates the left despite its fallacies and failures because it expresses the fear that many of the leaders of the labour movement have about the masses and revolution.  As an example, read leading Keynesian, James Kwak’s latest book, Economism. Kwak quotes Keynes: “For the most part, I think that Capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight, but that in itself it is in many ways extremely objectionable. Our problem is to work out a social organisation which shall be as efficient as possible without offending our notions of a satisfactory way of life.” And  Kwak comments“That remains our challenge today.”

To be fair, it ain’t easy opting for an economic policy that threatens the established order.  An inferno will follow from the bourgeois media and institutions.  In the autobiographical book of the year, economist Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister during the euro crisis of 2015, outlined the tortuous and labyrinthine encounters that he had with the Euro group in trying to combat the hell that the Troika of the IMF, ECB and EU aimed to impose on Greece.  Adults in the room, my battle with Europe’s deep establishment, is a personalised account, to say the least.  Varoufakis’ analysis of the crisis and his justification for what happened (the capitulation of the Syriza government and his resignation from the government) bear all the hallmarks of his ‘erratic Marxism’ (as he calls himself).  His battle was lost, but the war continues.

2017 was also the first year of Donald Trump’s reign over US capital.  One of his key aims was to deregulate the business and finance sector from the curbs that Congress had imposed (to some extent) after the global financial crash.  Deregulation at home, but protectionism abroad.  Brett Christophers’ book, The Great Leveller, looks at this dynamic tension between freeing capital from regulation and yet ensuring that it does not bring the house down.  Christopher argues that in this dynamic, law and legal measures have an underappreciated role in trying to preserve a “delicate balance between competition and monopoly”, which is needed to “regulate the rhythms of capitalist accumulation”.  The theme that Christophers highlights is the role of the law in evening out the anarchic swings between excessive monopoly and ruinous competition in different periods of capitalism.  This is a new insight.

But this was the year of the 150th anniversary and it could not go by without a new book on Capital by David Harvey, the most influential Marxist today.  In his Madness of Economic Reason, Harvey sets out his latest view of Marx’s schema in Capital.  This is a well written and easy book to read and not too long.  And there are many video lectures by DH on the main arguments in the book.  Harvey presented his latest thesis at the Capital.150 conference organised by this blog and Kings College in September.

DH’s argues that Volume One of Capital only deals with the production part of the circuit (the production of value and surplus value).  Volume Two deals with the realisation and circulation of capital between sectors in its reproduction, while Volume 3 deals with the distribution of that value.  And while Marx gives a great analysis of the production part, his later volumes are not complete and have been scratched together by Engels.  And thus, according to DH, Marx’s analysis falls short of explaining developments in modern capitalism. Now in the 21st century, crises under capitalism are at least as likely, if not more so, to be found in a breakdown in the circulation or realisation of surplus value than in its production.  And so crises are more likely now to happen in finance and over debt, due to ‘financialisation’.

Anybody who reads my blog, including the post in this conference and previous debates with Harvey on these issues, will know that I do not agree with his view of Capital. I argue that the production of surplus value and the accumulation of capital remains central to Marx’s explanation of capitalism and its contradictions that lead to recurrent crises.  As Marx put it: “The profit of the capitalist class has to exist before it can be distributed.”  The production of value is not, as DH argues, “a small sliver of value in motion” but the largest, both conceptually for Marx and also quantitatively, because in any capitalist economy, 80% of gross output is made up of means of production and intermediate goods compared to consumption.  In my view, the class struggle in the workplace remains at the centre of capitalism because it is about the struggle over the division of value between surplus value and labour’s share, as Marx showed in Volume One.

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19 Responses to “Best books of 2017”

  1. Edmund Gerard O'Sullivan Says:

    Your final sentence is on the button.

  2. Socialism in One Bedroom Says:

    If by populism we mean anti immigration or popular common sense values or popular ideas promoted by the lackeys of the ruling class then I think that is something to oppose and not embrace.

    If populism means making left wing policies popular then fair enough.

    Before reading the next paragraph it should be noted I have never read Mann or even heard of him so am speaking only from the small snippet taken from this article – apologies if I in any way misrepresent the argument!

    My view of why Keynesianism prevails is a little different to Mann’s (possibly the exact opposite), for me the ‘leaders’ of the ‘labour movement’ want or wanted revolutionary change but are constrained or were constrained by the conservative populism of the people they are/were attempting to represent. So for example the trade union movement has fallen to conservative leaders is because they had a base willing to listen to those ideas and the radicals have been pushed out. The reason I put in the past and present tense in the above paragraph is to illustrate the weakness in Mann’s outlook, it is a definitive position rather than one that takes the historical movement, i.e. a thing in motion.

    I have in good conscience tried to understand Heinrich’s arguments but I am always left thinking, are the English translations of Marx’s work that distorted!

    I am ploughing through Shaikh’s immense and incredible work and as someone who studied economics at university his work seems the most accessible to someone who has had the misfortune to study neo classical economics. Highly recommended!

  3. jlowrie Says:

    ”for me the ‘leaders’ of the ‘labour movement’ want or wanted revolutionary change but are constrained or were constrained by the conservative populism of the people they are/were attempting to represent.” Alas, I fear that for the most part the trajectory of history demonstrates the opposite. We already find Marx and Engels complaining of Wilhelm Liebknecht’s and Bebel’s attempts to elide the revolutionary content of their writings. It is the leaders who have been the problem. Look at the huge Italian communist party: its leaders liquidated it!

  4. AM Says:

    The Basic Income debate makes me wonder if the appeal of Keynsianism also comes from the fact that distributive changes are more familiar to people than changes in broad economics and power structures. That and more autonomist forms of socialism don’t make strong distinctions between production and distribution. And of course Andrew Kliman and others have discussed how falling rates of profits and saying system change is mandatory sometimes seems in opposition to the idea of more public spending or that higher wages will be viable.

  5. Socialism in One Bedroom Says:

    “We already find Marx and Engels complaining of Wilhelm Liebknecht’s and Bebel’s attempts to elide the revolutionary content of their writings. It is the leaders who have been the problem. Look at the huge Italian communist party: its leaders liquidated it!”

    Well maybe but the trajectory, at least in the union movement, was one where the leadership and probably more importantly the activists were/are more revolutionary than the base. As I said above it is a thing in motion and not fixed, and differs from nation to nation. I just think Mann is indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, if I have have him correct. Yes the leaders have sought to collude and accommodate to pre existing conditions but in my view it is wrong to put that down to cowardice, privilege etc on part of the leadership. And even if that sort of leadership did take the helm that was because, in my opinion, the base were ready to accept it all too easily.

    BTW I have bothered to look into Mann a little and from the bits I have seen so far I am quite impressed with his analysis.

  6. David Harvey Says:

    Michael,
    I cannot find anywhere where I said that the production of value is a small sliver of value in motion. You have a stomach, lungs and a heart and if anyone of them gives out you die. It makes no sense to say the stomach is more important than the lungs or the heart. Yes Marx said in the German ideology that people had to eat before they could think. But try eating when you are brain dead or when you cannot breathe. And so it is with valorization, realization and distribution in Marx’s writings. Each presumes the other (this is what Volume 2 teaches). That is all I am saying. Not to accept that is to deny that Marx had any theory, interest or concern for the totality. You have elsewhere described (dismissed!) me as an underconsumptionist because I write about realization as one of the key moments in circulation.. That is so completely wrong.
    david harvey

    • michael roberts Says:

      David

      According to my notes, I thought you did say that the production of value is ‘just a small sliver’ of value in motion at your recent LSE lecture. The video can be found here. http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=3877 We can check the video. I have not gone back to listen to all of your LSE lecture to check – but if you say you did not say that or more important you dont agree with that formulation and it is not your view, then fair enough. I certainly did not mean to make it up. I must have misheard you.

      But I dont accept your human body parts analogy works for Marx’s theory of value. The loss of the stomach, lungs and heart may each be equally terminal for the human body. But in the case of the capitalist mode of production, the production of value drives circulation and distribution, not vice versa. There would be no circulation and distribution of value if capitalists were not driven to force labour create value and then extract surplus value from that. So I dont agree that each ‘presumes the other’. The ‘others’ presume production. So the human body is not a suitable metaphor, in my view.

      David, you say you are not an underconsumptionist and I must not ‘dismiss’ you as such. Fair enough. But I take your view to be that the cause (s) of capitalist crises is/are just as likely to to be found in the realisation or the distribution of ‘value in motion’ as in its production. I am sure that you consider the production part of the circuit of value to be as just as important as the other parts. But I am not sure how you think crises occur in the production part of the circuit of capital. Marx’s law of profitability of capitalist production as a cause does not seem to play a key (or any?) part of your explanation of crises.

      Realisation is obviously necessary and in that sense is a ‘key moment in the circulation of capital’. But why and when does the inherent possibility of the failure of realisation become reality? And why do crises happen in regular and recurring cycles? In my view, the regular recurrence of crises can only be explained coherently by Marx’s law of profitability in capitalist production. Moreover, there is empirical evidence to back that view. I assume this is where we differ on crises.

    • Carlos Says:

      According to Vol 2. P. 196

      “As a matter of fact capitalist production is commodity production as the general form of production. But it is so and becomes so more and more in the course of its development only because labour itself appears here as a commodity, because the labourer sells his labour, that is, the function of his labour-power, and our assumption is that he sells it at its value, determined by its cost of reproduction. To the extent that labour becomes wage-labour, the producer becomes an industrial capitalist. For this reason capitalist production (and hence also commodity production) does not reach its full scope until the direct agricultural producer becomes a wage-labourer. In the relation of capitalist and wage-labourer, the money-relation, the relation between the buyer and the seller, becomes a relation inherent in production. But this relation has its foundation in the social character of production, not in the mode of exchange. The latter conversely emanates from the former. It is, however, quite in keeping with the bourgeois horizon, everyone being engrossed in the transaction of shady business, not to see in the character of the mode of production the basis of the mode of exchange corresponding to it, but vice versa.”

  7. David Harvey Says:

    You fail to take seriously Marx’s injunction in the very last sentence of the first section of Capital “Finally, nothing can be a value without being an object of utility. If a thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.” The theory of capital that Marx proposes is that value is created in production and realized in circulation, that there must therefore be what he calls a “contradictory unity between production and realization”. In the first two volumes of Capital Marx assumed away all problems of realization by assuming that “all commodities exchange at their value,” Surely, as a good economist you have to consider what happens to the arguments when this assumption no longer holds. Of course, crises can be generated in production and I am always mentioning such possibilities but the mechanism you favor is only one mechanism. Workers can just refuse to work or competition may slacken to the point of monopoly……But you have to acknowledge that crises can also arise around problems of realization and also in a variety of ways through problems of distribution (e.g. excessive extractions of rents…you yourself often talk about the UK as a rentier economy in practice and I agree with you). But you work with a crisis theory that fails to take such issues seriously. How can you theorize the rise of rentier economies without acknowledging that crises can arise within the distributional field (as Marx acknowledges in his analyses of 1848 and 1857 as “primarily commercial and financial crises” like the one we experienced in 2007-8.

    happy holidays and new year!!

    david

    • mandm Says:

      Perhaps both you and Michael under-estimate the significance of the surplus product created by super-exploited labor in the global system’s “developing” peripheries–significant in both maintaining the imperial system and endangering it by (necessarily for the compradors) producing too much.

      Didn’t Marx “assume away all problems of realization” (i.e. the fundamental, free market premise of political economy) in order to show that, even given this assumption, the capitalist mode of production (forget social reproduction) is fraught with contradictions? –the main one (given the assuming away) being the tendency of the rate of profit to fall? Having shown this, wasn’t it his intent to go beyond the critique of political economy in the volumes he never completed?

      (Euro-centered) marxists (and even Luxemburg, who was not) do not give the old man enough credit.

    • michael roberts Says:

      David
      Thanks for your reply. Yes, crises can occur in any part of the circuit of capital – historically crises have been triggered by crashes in tulips, overseas investments, the banking sector, housing sector, stock markets etc. Indeed, any slump in production and investment will be accompanied and even first visible in realisation failure. The 1929 stock market crash triggered the Great Depression; the oil and dollar crisis triggered the 1974-5 international slump, and the Great Recession in 2008 was triggered by the housing bust in the US and the global credit crunch. But these realisation crises were not the cause of these slumps.

      In my view, there are different levels of ’cause’. In my paper Tendencies, triggers and tulips, I outlined what I mean.
      https://thenextrecession.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/presentation-to-the-third-seminar-of-the-fi-on-the-economic-crisis.pdf

      There is an underlying cause in the inability of capitalist production to overcome the contradiction expressed in the commodity between the production of use value and value (as expressed in exchange value). That is the fundamental contradiction which is expressed in Marx’s three laws of value, accumulation and profitability. This is the contradiction in the capitalist production process that leads to problems of realisation.

      I have described the UK as a rentier economy, ie increasingly dependent on the appropriation of surplus value created in other countries. As a result, the UK is more vulnerable to crises that start in banking and finance than other more productive-oriented economies. Indeed, if Brexit leads to a reduction in financial services for the UK, it will suffer badly. But a rentier economy is still dependent on the generation of surplus value, both at home and abroad. If surplus value production is rising globally or at home in the productive sectors, any financial crashes will not lead to significant slumps – in my view. There are many financial crashes that do not lead to slumps in production (overproduction).

      Why do we have this debate? Neither of us is interested in scoring points for ego. We debate these issues because we are trying to understand better the nature of capitalism. If we can improve our understanding the causes of crises, we will be better able to organise in the interest of the exploited (the 99%). Better interpretation leads to more effective change.

      Best wishes for the holiday break.

      • sartesian Says:

        “I have described the UK as a rentier economy, ie increasingly dependent on the appropriation of surplus value created in other countries.”

        When has capitalism anywhere since the mid 18th century NOT been a “rentier economy”– dependent upon appropriation of surplus, as product initially but then monetized as value, extracted and realized globally?

        Is Britain today, with the bulk of its trade with the other advanced countries, more or less rentier than it was when it had an empire?

  8. sartesian Says:

    Certainly crises can arise from multiple sources. Crises are posited in the very separations that are maintained by capital– production vs. consumption; production vs. distribution– but first, all these separations are secondary to and derived from the “primary separation” engendered and enforced by capital– the separation of the means of production from the producers; the opposition of the means of production, as the condition of labor, to labor itself; and secondly Marx defines crisis, and correctly, as a short-lived phenomenon of capital, a moment, while in volume 3 he deals with the historical or structural tendency of capital. And that is that as the means of production are accumulated as values themselves, the rate of profitability tends to decline. This for Marx is the “most important” law of capitalist production in that it a)identifies the historical limits to capital accumulation b)represents in condensed expression the conflict between means and relations of production that Marx identifies as the trigger to revolutionary struggle.

    In fact, beneath the appearance of a “disturbance within the distributional field” a la 1847 or 1857, once will find a deeper disturbance in the production field, so to speak, in the relation between the technical component and the living component of capital reproduction, which Marx says is the real root of every disturbance in the accumulation of capital.

    In fact, Marx in volume 3 “aims” towards a “synthesis” of the historical structural tendency of the rate of profit to decline, and the short-term, cyclical eruptions of “crisis” that are manifested as overproduction. In volume 3 Marx points out that overproduction is always overproduction of the means of production of capital, and if we look closely enough at 1847, 1857, 2007, we’ll see that below the surface of a “banking crisis” or a “liquidity crisis” there is a change in the relation between the technical and living components of value production that gets manifested as a decline in the rate of profit.

  9. belfast plebeian Says:

    What Karl Marx thought about causality in science is not easy to discern. The man wrote political tracts which followed the logic of common sense that A causes B to happen and B causes C to happen. We all do this in our everyday life. The car crashed because the driver was drunk, or the driver fell asleep etc. A simply model of everyday cause and effect prevails in the journalism about politics, the Republicans changed the law on tax making some very wealthy people statistically better off than they were before.

    It is doubtful Marx fully complied with the everyday model of simple cause and effect in his mature economic writing. He does say in a letter to his friend that while he he admired Darwin’s conclusions he did not admire his common sense method of getting there. The economic method of Marx depends a great deal on intellectual abstraction which usually means a skipping over the objects understood as a fixed cause or fixed effect. It reminds one of the intellectual method used by of some of the Scholastics.

    It is thought that the everyday model of cause and effect was not thought to be adequate to an object that is both a set of changing parts and a dynamic whole. It is also believed that the philosopher Hegel had discovered a way of knowing the inner life of a more complex object. Something he described in his logical studies

    One obvious point is that it hardly makes sense to speak about an object being contradictory and at the same time adhere to a simple model of cause and effect. The human body analogy is not a useful one for we hope to understand its workings in terms of cause and effect rather than in terms of the contradictions of the organs.

    The everyday model of certain cause leading to certain effect is subordinated to a system of dialectical logic that has no sure beginning and maybe no sure end. Therefore to speak about production being the cause of all realisation problems or the other way about is like a decision to step away from the logic of Capital back into to the everyday world of simple cause and effect. Hegel likened his own account of how a Whole comes into view as like apprehending or following the journey within a circle. When we read the economic writings of Marx we find ourselves dizzy walking along a circle or maybe even a spiral. It is then that we turn back to the everyday world and say things like the recession was caused by somebody belonging to some organisation making a fateful decision that caused the dam thing to happen. The logic of common sense, linear cause and effect always reasserts itself in public conversation : A caused B and so forth. Most scientists do this, even the physicists do it when speaking about the big bang as a cause and inflation as an effect etc.

    • sartesian Says:

      Marx isn’t dealing with “cause and effect.” His is analyzing, and critiquing, determining relations– the relations that make capital what it is, and determine its development, that determine the path of accumulation.

      At the risk of producing a wall of text which, like most walls, acts as an obstacle rather than a pathway, I’ll reproduce this from the Grundrisse:

      “The general laws developed previously here briefly summarized thus: The real surplus value is determined by the relation of surplus labour to necessary labour, or by the portion of the capital, the portion of objectified labour, which exchanges for living labour, relative to the portion of objectified labour by which it is replaced. But surplus value in the form of profit is measured by the total value of the capital presupposed to the production process. Presupposing the same surplus value, the same surplus labour in proportion to necessary labour, then, the rate of profit depends on the relation between the part of capital exchanged for living labour and the part existing in the form of raw material and means of production. Hence, the smaller the portion exchanged for living labour becomes, the smaller becomes the rate of profit. Thus, in the same proportion as capital takes up a larger place as capital in the production process relative to immediate labour, i.e. the more the relative surplus value grows – the value-creating power of capital – the more does the rate of profit fall. We have seen that the magnitude of the capital already presupposed, presupposed to reproduction, is specifically expressed in the growth of fixed capital, as the produced productive force, objectified labour endowed with apparent life. The total value of the producing capital will express itself in each of its portions as a diminished proportion of the capital exchanged for living labour relative to the part of capital existing as constant value. Take e.g. manufacturing industry. In the same proportion as fixed capital grows here, machinery etc., the part of capital existing in raw materials must grow, while the part exchanged for living labour decreases. Hence, the rate of profit falls relative to the total value of the capital presupposed to production – and of the part of capital acting as capital in production. The wider the existence already achieved by capital, the narrower the relation of newly created value to presupposed value (reproduced value). Presupposing equal surplus value, i.e. equal relation of surplus labour and necessary labour, there can therefore be an unequal profit, and it must be unequal relative to the size of the capitals. The rate of profit can rise although real surplus value falls. Indeed, the capital can grow and the rate of profit can grow in the same relation if the relation of the part of capital presupposed as value and existing in the form of raw materials and fixed capital rises at an equal rate relative to the part of the capital exchanged for living labour. But this equality of rates presupposes growth of the capital without growth and development of the productive power of labour. One presupposition suspends the other. This contradicts the law of the development of capital, and especially of the development of fixed capital. Such a progression can take place only at stages where the mode of production of capital is not yet adequate to it, or in spheres of production where it has assumed predominance only formally, e.g. in agriculture… The gross profit, i.e. the surplus value, regarded apart from its formal relation, not as a proportion but rather as a simple magnitude of value without connection with any other, will grow on the average not as does the rate of profit, but as does the size of the capital. Thus, while the rate of profit will be inversely related to the value of the capital, the sum of profit will be directly related to it. However, even this statement is true only for a restricted stage of the development of the productive power of capital or of labour. A capital of 100 with a profit of 10% yields a smaller sum of profit than a capital of 1,000 with a profit of 2%. In the first case the sum is 10, in the second 20, i.e. the gross profit of the larger capital is twice as large as that of the 10 times smaller capital, although the rate of the smaller capital’s profit is 5 times greater than that of the larger. But if the larger capital’s profit were only 1%, then the sum of its profit would be 10, like that for the 10 times smaller capital, because the rate of profit would have declined in the same relation as its size. If the rate of profit of the capital of 1,000 were only 1/2%, then the sum of its profit would be only half as large as that of the smaller capital, only 5, because the rate of profit would be 20 times smaller. Thus, expressed in general terms: if the rate of profit declines for the larger capital, but not in relation with its size, then the gross profit rises although the rate of profit declines. If the profit rate declines relative to its size, then the gross profit remains the same as that of the smaller capital; remains stationary. If the profit rate declines more than its size increases, then the gross profit of the larger capital decreases relative to the smaller one in proportion as its rate of profit declines. This is in every respect the most important law of modern political economy, and the most essential for understanding the most difficult relations. It is the most important law from the historical standpoint. It is a law which, despite its simplicity, has never before been grasped and, even less, consciously articulated. Since this decline in the rate of profit is identical in meaning (1) with the productive power already produced, and the foundation formed by it for new production; this simultaneously presupposing an enormous development of scientific powers; (2) with the decline of the part of the capital already produced which must be exchanged for immediate labour, i.e. with the decline in the immediate labour required for the reproduction of an immense value, expressing itself in a great mass of products, great mass of products with low prices, because the total sum of prices is = to the reproduced capital + profit; (3) [with] the dimension of capital generally, including the portion of it which is not fixed capital; hence intercourse on a magnificent scale, immense sum of exchange operations, large size of the market and all-sidedness of simultaneous labour; means of communication etc., presence of the necessary consumption fund to undertake this gigantic process (workers’ food, housing etc.); hence it is evident that the material productive power already present, already worked out, existing in the form of fixed capital, together with the population etc., in short all conditions of wealth, that the greatest conditions for the reproduction of wealth, i.e. the abundant development of the social individual – that the development of the productive forces brought about by the historical development of capital itself, when it reaches a certain point, suspends the self-realization of capital, instead of positing it. Beyond a certain point, the development of the powers of production becomes a barrier for capital; hence the capital relation a barrier for the development of the productive powers of labour. When it has reached this point, capital, i.e. wage labour, enters into the same relation towards the development of social wealth and of the forces of production as the guild system, serfdom, slavery, and is necessarily stripped off as a fetter. The last form of servitude assumed by human activity, that of wage labour on one side, capital on the other, is thereby cast off like a skin, and this casting-off itself is the result of the mode of production corresponding to capital; the material and mental conditions of the negation of wage labour and of capital, themselves already the negation of earlier forms of unfree social production, are themselves results of its production process. The growing incompatibility between the productive development of society and its hitherto existing relations of production expresses itself in bitter contradictions, crises, spasms. The violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation, is the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production. It is not only the growth of scientific power, but the measure in which it is already posited as fixed capital, the scope and width in which it is realized and has conquered the totality of production. It is, likewise, the development of the population etc., in short, of all moments of production; in that the productive power of labour, like the application of machinery, is related to the population; whose growth in and for itself already the presupposition as well as the result of the growth of the use values to be reproduced and hence also to be consumed. Since this decline of profit signifies the same as the decrease of immediate labour relative to the size of the objectified labour which it reproduces and newly posits, capital will attempt every means of checking the smallness of the relation of living labour to the size of the capital generally, hence also of the surplus value, if expressed as profit, relative to the presupposed capital, by reducing the allotment made to necessary labour and by still more expanding the quantity of surplus labour with regard to the whole labour employed. Hence the highest development of productive power together with the greatest expansion of existing wealth will coincide with depreciation of capital, degradation of the labourer, and a most straitened exhaustion of his vital powers. These contradictions lead to explosions, cataclysms, crises, in which by momentaneous suspension of labour and annihilation of a great portion of capital the latter is violently reduced to the point where it can go on. These contradictions, of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide. [21] Yet, these regularly recurring catastrophes lead to their repetition on a higher scale, and finally to its violent overthrow. ”

      Now I don’t think we can claim Marx is being “undialectical” in this analysis; nor is he engaging in a linear cause and effect analysis. But he does explain the law, the conflicts and contradictions that determine the law, and its source. Marx here isn’t concerned with the possible various origins of a momentary crisis in capital accumulation, but in the historical tendency of, and result of, such capital accumulation, and how it becomes its own obstacle.

      Realization, distribution, circulation, are specifically excluded from Marx’s analysis because, as is clear from the above, realization, distribution, circulation, are derived, are dependent upon the fundamental determining relation of value production– the replacement of living labor with and by labor accumulated in the means of production as capital value.

      • mandm Says:

        The tragic history of the modern (“destructive production”) period of capitalist development keeps confirming the correctness of these “fundamentals” of dialectical/historical materialism.

    • jlowrie Says:

      ”What Karl Marx thought about causality in science is not easy to discern.”

      This is true of causality in all branches of science. Even where scientists share the same basic outlook, for example what I shall call the Dialectic School of Biology around Lewontin and Levins ( cf ”The Dialectical Biologist” 1985) as opposed to the genetic reductionist school of Dawkins and co. with his anthropomorphic nonsense of ”the selfish gene,” even there the biologists have sharp disagreements. Levins and Lewontin dedicate their book “To Frederick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted.” This is the spirit in which scientific controversy has to be waged.

      I strongly recommend the Festschrift for Lewontin ”Thinking about Evolution” (Cambridge 2001). This demonstrates that such disagreements as those between Michael and David Harvey are the norm. In fact if there were no such controversies we would not be dealing with science at all, but with something akin to revealed truth.

      • jlowrie Says:

        One of the contributors to the above Festschrift the Marxist biologist, Steven Rose, has a fascinating discussion of causality . A frog sitting beside a pool notices a snake lurking in a nearby tree and hops into the pool. What has caused the frog to jump? It seems it depends on what kind of scientist one is.

        The physiologist says: “The frog jumps because the muscles in its legs contract because of impulses in the motor nerves arriving at the muscles from the frog’s brain…”

        The ethologist argues the above tells us how not why the frog jumped. “The reason why is because it sees the snake and in order to avoid it. The contraction of the frog’s muscles is but one aspect of a complex process and must be understood in terms of the goals of that process.”

        The development biologist argues: ” the only reason the frog can jump at all is BECAUSE during its development…its nerves, brain and muscles have become wired up in such a way that such sequences of activity are inevitable or at least most probable given any set of starting conditions.”

        The evolutionary biologist argues: ”The frog jumps BECAUSE during its evolutionary history it was adaptive for its ancestors to do so at the sight of a snake; those ancestors who failed to do so were eaten and hence their progeny failed to be selected.”

        The molecular biologist argues: ” The frog jumps because of the biochemical properties of its muscles.”

        Rose observes ”The confusion about several ways in which ’cause’ is used has bedevilled science since the days of Aristotle.”

        ”Biologists need all five types of explanation-and probably others beside” (”Lifelines” 2005 Pp10-13).

        ”Different scientific disciplines, from the social to the subatomic sciences, deal with different levels of organisation of matter. The divisions between levels are however confused. In part they are ontological, and relate to scale and complexity, in which successive levels are nested one within the other” ( P304).

      • Edgar Says:

        Very interesting!

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