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Saying Marx Is Right, Getting Him (And Capitalism) Wrong

“God save me from my friends; I can protect myself from my enemies.”

Karl Marx’s circle of friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, has grown considerably since the financial crisis broke out in the autumn of 2008. Now, three years later and with many countries facing a double-dip recession or worse, articles titled “Was Marx Right?” (or even “Marx Was Right”) are a fairly common sight in the pages of the financial press.

Twenty years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was so obvious to most that Marx had been wrong that he was subject to more ridicule than criticism—or simply ignored altogether. Followers of Marx may find it satisfying that he is now being taken seriously, but the standard used to conclude that he is “right” in 2011 is not much different from the one employed in 1991 to prove he was “wrong.”

Then as now Marx is often treated as a nineteenth-century Nostradamus, as if his main aim had been to predict the future course of capitalism or prophesize its end. Judged on this basis, Marx has been deemed right whenever capitalism is struggling or appears to be on its last legs, only to be proved wrong again during the next economic recovery or boom. (And since many assume that Marx sketched the blueprint for state capitalism, a system still commonly referred to as communism or socialism, his critics have pointed to false predictions about a future utopia as another reason he is wrong.)

Using the word “prediction” to describe the results of Marx’s investigation of capitalism is a bit off the mark. The term is only apt in the sense that his analysis of how capitalism functions, which reveals its limits or boundaries as a profit-driven system, can serve as a basis for “predicting” what sorts of problems will arise under it. But these are more general expectations than specific predictions, and from experience we already know what sort of trouble to expect from capitalism. The significance of Marx’s analysis is that it explains why those problems – such as unemployment, war, and poverty – are permanent fixtures of the capitalist social system.

Dr. Doom digs Marx

One of the most widely-quoted “Marx was right” comments in recent months was made by the economist Nouriel Roubini, who earned fame and the nickname “Dr. Doom” for correctly predicting a messy end to the housing bubble. In a videotaped interview with the Wall Street Journal in August, Roubini said: “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.”

And Roubini repeated the same point in an article titled “Is Capitalism Doomed?” in which he wrote: “So Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proven wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality and reduces final demand.”

Roubini’s praise for Marx gets his ideas on crisis wrong in two significant ways worth exploring: Marx certainly did not think that workers’ limited consumption is the real  cause of crises (or that increasing their consumption is a way out); nor did he think of a major crisis in terms of the potential “self-destruction” of capitalism.

Greedy but not stupid

The “underconsumption” theory of crisis that Roubini ascribes to Marx is in fact a position that he had harshly criticized. On just an empirical level, Marx thought it dubious to claim that “crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption” because experience shows that they are always directly preceded by “a period in which wages rise generally.” Thus, according to the underconsumption theory, “such a period should rather remove the crisis” (Capital vol. 2).

The more interesting rebuttal of the theory, however, can be found in Marx’s explanation of why capitalists, as Roubini laments, end up “cutting jobs [which] reduces labor income, increases inequality and reduces final demand.” Are they simply too stupid and greedy to know what’s good for them? Should they read Roubini’s latest book to figure it out?

Capitalists may indeed be greedy and short-sighted, but they are not stupid when it comes to their own interests. Unlike the advocates of the underconsumption theory, they are smart enough to remain focused on obtaining profit, knowing that to fall short of that goal can mean falling out of the capitalist class.

Raising the wages of their own workers may contribute to expanding the overall “final demand” but it cuts directly into their own individual profit. Moreover, the beneficiaries of a wage increase at one capitalist firm will be other capitalist firms, particularly those producing consumer goods. Such an act of self-sacrifice on the part of some capitalists is even less likely to occur in an economic crisis, when it is already difficult for many firms to secure a more or less average level of profit. Roubini should know that when the prospects for profit are dim, capitalists will prefer to curtail or even cease production altogether, not raise wages. He can lament the situation all he likes, but it is perfectly rational behaviour under the irrational capitalist system.

Yet the underconsumption theory of crisis, despite its inanity, has continued to seem attractive and plausible to some capitalists (and most Leftists). Marx explains how the theory reflects capitalists’ rather fond view of the workers of other capitalists: “Every capitalist knows this about his worker, that he does not relate to him as producer to consumer, and [he therefore] wishes to restrict his consumption, i.e. . . . his wage, as much as possible. Of course he would like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest consumers possible of his own commodity” (Grundrisse).

Roubini sees that restricted consumption limits final demand, and fancies that the solution can be found in simply reversing the situation by increasing consumption to expand final demand. He never stops to think about why consumption must be limited in the first place. Roubini views restricted consumption as the cause of crisis when in fact it is the natural outcome and also the basis of a system designed to squeeze profit from workers’ labor.

Ignoring the profit motive and its relation to workers’ wages, Roubini feels free to dispense his wisdom on how the current crisis can be overcome by means of a “return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods” in order to “enable market-oriented economies to operate as they should and can.” Instead of imagining the “should and can,” however, Roubini would be better advised to consider the “how and why.”

A forcible solution

The other way Roubini gets Marx wrong is by saying that he envisaged the possibility that capitalism could “self-destruct” in a crisis. Alarming capitalists by pointing to this dire prediction may be part of Roubini’s shtick as Dr. Doom, but at the same time it is a fairly widespread assumption regarding what Marx thought.

Marx does describe the occurrence of a world crisis as an “explosion” or “eruption” of capitalist contradictions and antagonisms, or even as a “destructive process.” But far from viewing crisis as the potential end of capitalism, Marx describes it as a “forcible solution” or “forcible adjustment” that temporarily restores the disturbed equilibrium, and as a violent process involving the “real concentration and forcible adjustment of all the contradictions of bourgeois economy” (Theories of Surplus Value).

The capitalist contradictions or antagonisms Marx is alluding to concern things that are linked to, yet independent of, each other – such as the relation between sale and purchase, or between the production process and circulation process. These things are clearly connected and interrelated, yet they can diverge from each other. The potential for sale and purchase to diverge, for instance, is magnified greatly under our modern credit system, where an inability to conclude one transaction can unleash a chain reaction that disrupts other transactions.  

Crises according to Marx are a forcible means of bringing such contradictory (semi-independent) elements back into some sort of alignment with each other so that the system can better function. This view of crises as a solution, albeit a crude and violent one, contrasts with the outlook of Roubini, who sees the destruction of a crisis as an avoidable problem rather than an unfolding solution.

Marx seemed to have economists like Roubini in mind when he wrote: “Instead of investigating the nature of the conflicting elements which erupt in the catastrophe, the apologists content themselves with denying the catastrophe itself and insisting, in the face of their regular and periodic recurrence, that if production were carried on according to the textbooks, crises would never occur” (Theories of Surplus Value).

The entire focus for an economist like Roubini is on coming up with practical solutions to crisis, not understanding why crisis occurs or what it tells us about the contradictions and limitations of capitalism. Marx thought of crisis as a phenomenon to be understood, not as a problem that could be solved. Even if we can manage to understand the exact causes of a specific crisis and fully examine all of the contradictions and antagonisms that are “strikingly revealed” (Theories of Surplus Value) in it, we are still not in a position to solve or prevent future crises. This is because the contradictions that explode in a crisis are all an integral part of the capitalist system.

What is clear from reading Marx is that the only way to get rid of crisis is to replace capitalism with a new system, free of capitalist barriers and antagonisms. This is not a “prediction” of the end of capitalism, but an explanation why workers must bring about its end.

In his analysis of crisis and other phenomena, Marx always seeks to understand why things are the way they are, not to predict when they might disappear or how the system might “self-destruct.” The defenders of capitalism are less interested in the why of things, than in making suggestions for how they should be, as if problems like crisis could be avoided if only capitalists followed the recommendations of economics textbooks. And this fosters the misguided hope that capitalism can (some day) be reformed. It’s natural for these economists to misinterpret Marx, even when praising him: they take capitalism completely for granted, and Marx didn’t.