Further Reflections on Crises
Because the pattern of a particular crisis is influenced by the concrete circumstances of the time no crisis is merely a repetition of those which have preceded it. While there are elements common to all crises we cannot say in advance how these elements will interact in a specific situation or what is the relative strength of other factors associated with it. Consequently to understand all the relevant details of a particular crisis, we can only be wise after the event.
Nevertheless we can say that all crises are intimately connected with two fundamental features of the system, viz., “anarchy of production” and “disproportional industrial development.” These two features are again intimately bound up with each other.
By anarchy of production we do not infer economic chaos, on the contrary capitalism is a system ruled by laws and compulsions of its own. What is meant is that Capitalism is not a system consciously regulated by social aims. Capitalists do not meet beforehand to harmonise production in accordance with social ends. Capitalism being profit motivated production, capitalists invest in industry for no other motive and without regard for and little knowledge of other investments being carried out at the same time. But capitalist production is social production and the different branches of industry form an interlocking whole. It can be seen then that the different yet integrated industrial spheres, governed as they are by autonomous decisions being made simultaneously, there exists in the system an inherent bias towards uneven development between the various branches of industry. When this disproportionality reaches a certain level the possibility of a crisis emerges.
To put the matter concretely we can begin by saying that the market for any product is dependent on the volume of production in other spheres and therefore cannot be accurately gauged. Now if we assume that Capitalists in a particular industry have over-estimated the demands for their product and so produced more than the market can absorb at a remunerative price and if we take it that other industries have not similarly expanded, then it can be said that this particular industry has over-expanded relative to other industries, i.e. a disproportionality of industrial development has taken place.
This relative over-expansion of industry will, however, generate cumulative effects. Not only will the industry affected cut investment and hence production but in doing so it reduces its demands for commodities, including labour-power, to those industries linked to it. They in turn will cut their orders to other concerns and so on. As a result a widespread decline in production will occur.
If the initial over-expansion is big enough it may permeate the entire economy and precipitate a crisis. Large scale unemployment will appear, purchasing power suffer a sharp decline and surplus products will then begin to appear on the market as a matter of course.
It can be seen then that over-production in one branch of industry brings elements of over-production in other branches of industry, and by rupturing the conditions of equilibrium, initiates relative over-production, which is indistinguishable from general over-production. All crises then are crises of relative over-production. An industry can only over-expand in relation to other industries although the effect which this produces is, as has been already stated, indistinguishable from general over-production.
Crises, as Marx pointed out, do not arise through a lack of paying consumption of the mass of the population. They arise because disproportional development in one industrial sector leads to a curtailment of investment (and so production) which by upsetting the balance of the different industrial branches brings about a general slowing down of production. It is this disproportional development which starts the downward spiral of wages and employment with its corollary of shrinking purchasing power. The lack of paying consumption is then a consequence not a cause of crises.
To elucidate the point further we might add that the effect of a boom is to generate rising levels of purchasing power, and further that wage payments seem to increase more rapidly in the latter stages of the boom than at the beginning. But rising wages tend to reduce profit margins. Further, when an over expansion of one industrial sphere has been big enough to start a downward spiral of investment, and profits, there comes into existence a volume of capital investment too great to be consistent with former profit levels. As Marx says, “Since production depends on investment [such a situation] constitutes an over-production of capital which takes the form of an over-production of commodities.”
From the standpoint of the employers one of the prime factors for ending boom conditions is that wages are too high to make increasing investment desirable. Any return to a new stage of profitable investment depends then on labour-power becoming cheap enough to increase profit margins to the point which makes an expansion of production worthwhile.
A crisis is made possible in Capitalism not because the workers have too little purchasing power—in fact as already stated their purchasing power is at its height prior to the boom breaking—but because of the antagonistic class distribution of income inherent in a system of antagonistic class relations of production. Capitalists cut back investment because there is an unsatisfactory income distribution for them, in that profit margins are too small and wage levels too high. They are not concerned with some abstract purchasing power but in the concrete fact that the purchasing power in the form of wages is too high for the existing volume of capital to earn a given return.
To say, as under-consumptionists say, that crises are caused by too much of everything being produced is not in accordance with the facts. A crisis does not mean there is a total deficit of purchasing power unable to buy back an absolute over-production of consumers goods. The decline in purchasing power of the workers in a crisis situation is the outcome of an unfavourable distribution of income as the result of the system failing to expand proportionally and so bringing about elements of over-production in the various sectors of industry whose net effect is general over-production. It is this that originates a falling spiral of wages and employment and makes inevitable the appearance of market “surplus stock” in the shape of articles consumed by the working class. There is still, nevertheless, plenty of purchasing power in the pockets, holdings, banks, etc., of the Capitalists, to buy this surplus stock but of course they do not choose to spend their money that way.
Muddle-headed theorists have argued that crises could be assuaged and even cured, if at the first sign of a slump, the Capitalists went in for increased personal consumption, buying more Rolls Royces presumably and having nightly champagne parties. But it is forgotten, or is not known by these theorists, that boom or slump, the accumulation of capital i.e. the self-expansion of capital is still the basic urge of the Capitalists. At least the Capitalists are realists who know that they must husband their resources and even increase them as far as conditions permit, if they are to successfully ride the crest of the next boom wave. Like the workers they tighten their belt’s even though the belts are larger and the stomach more capacious. In more theoretical language it can be said that the primary motive of Capitalists is the expansion of exchange value not the production of immediate articles of consumption.
Marx himself took the view that the system in relation to human needs does not produce too much but too little. He held it to be a system of organised scarcity. In Vol. 3 of Capital he states, “It is not a fact that too much wealth is produced. But it is a fact that there is periodical over-production in its capitalistic and contradictory form.”
Which brings us to Mr. Strachey again. In the 1930’s he wrote a much hailed book, The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. Nowhere in it did he provide any coherent account of crises. One could detect, however, the over-tones of an under-consumptionist view of crises. Thus on (p. 248) we are told “that the essence of every capitalist crisis is that the population is unable to purchase the ever-growing quantity of consumers commodities which come pouring on to the market.” One page 289 he adds, “the under-consumptionists were not wrong in one sense but they were wrong in thinking that the payment of high wages was the solution to crises.” All of which shows the confused nature of Mr. Strachey’s thinking on the subject of crises.
What was more serious was his attempt to link what Marx termed the tendency of the law of the falling rate of profit to crises and to establish it as the crucial cause. It is true that Marx had listed a number of tendencies which worked in an opposite direction and Mr. Strachey dutifully enumerated them. But in The Nature of Capitalist Crisis he contended that ” they can check but not overcome the main downward tendency of the rate of profit.” P. 264).
This view that the tendency of the law of the falling rate of profit is the main agency for encompassing the downfall of capitalism can be briefly stated. It is held that the rate of profit falls in a continuous downward curve and finally reaches a point which provides no further impetus for capital accumulation, just as the steady drop in potential of a power source would reach a point where it could no longer supply a driving force to machinery.
Not only would the falling rate of profit as it reached a new low level precipitate a crisis but as a result each crisis would become more catastrophic. Bound up with this view is the belief of some ultimate breakdown of the system. This mechanistic and fatalistic view of capitalism was fashionable for years among Communist theorists and Mr. Strachey fashionably followed it.
Marx’s own formulation of the tendency of the falling rate of profit can be briefly enumerated, Marx divided capital outlay into two parts, one part he called constant capital, which consists of tools, machinery, etc. The other part he termed variable capital constitutes wage payments in order to buy labour-power and set it to productive activity. It is this active labour power which alone produces value and a value greater than its upkeep. It is thus the sole source of surplus value and hence profits.
Nevertheless, a marked trend of capitalism is the increasing mechanisation of the process of production. This means that as capital outlay grows, a proportionally greater amount will be spent on means of production than on wage bills. But as we have seen, variable capital provides the sole source of value and hence profit. It follows then that as capital grows and with it the ratio of constant capital to variable capital, then less value and profit is produced in a given unit of capital. And the rate of profit which is computed on the total capital outlay must fall.
We can illustrate this by assuming that a given capital outlay of £10,000 is divided into £5,000 constant and £5,000 variable and that the rate of exploitation is 100%. In that case the profit will be £5,000 and the rate of profit 50%. If, however, the capital grows to £30,000, of which £20,000 is laid out in constant capital and £10,000 in variable capital and the rate of exploitation is 100%, then the profit will be £10,000. Thus proportionately less value—and profit has been produced on the larger capital and the rate of profit has fallen from 50% to 33½ %
But Marx was quick to enumerate counter tendencies for keeping the rate of profit up. The main ones being, increasing productivity of labour due to the increasing efficiency of mechanisation. The cheapening of the elements of constant capital, resulting from increased productivity, which means that although the physical volume of constant capital increases, the value composition does not increase at the same rate. Then there is the existence of an industrial reserve army which acts as a reservoir of cheap labour-power and stimulates the setting up of new industries with a low ratio of constant to variable capital and hence a high rate of profit. The averaging in these higher profit rates with the lower profit rate of the older industries raises the overall rate of profit.
Thus the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is merely a tendency among counter tendencies. Marx’s own analysis of the matter gave no grounds for supposing which, if any, tendencies would prevail. Indeed for Marx to have advanced some economic law in abstraction to which capitalism must conform would have been contrary to his empirical method. For him such tendencies or counter tendencies could only be relevant to the concrete circumstances of any given stage of capitalism. It was left to Communist theorists and the facile Mr. Strachey to elevate this mere tendency to some law of social gravity.
In actual fact there is no direct evidence of some steady decline in the rate of profit over a long period. There are, of course, several profit rates in capitalism and a decline or drop in one of them is not necessarily a cause or even a factor for precipitating a crisis. And even if there did exist a tendency for the rate of profit to fall due to growth of the ratio of constant to variable capital, over a long period, it would be very slow and could not account for the sharp decline in profit levels and the widespread curtailment of investment associated with crises. Again the idea of what constitutes a profit norm for capitalists can undergo change and the norm of one period might be lower than the preceding one. Thus a lower rate of profit would constitute no disincentive for investment which is characteristic of a crisis situation. There is not the slightest reason for supposing that some alleged long term tendency of a falling rate of profit is organically connected with crises and ultimately the demise of capitalism. Such views are not propositions of Marx but projections of Communist politics.
Mr. Strachey in combating the false assumptions he once held, believes he is combating Marxism whereas it is the present Mr. Strachey quarrelling with the past Mr. Strachey without understanding what the quarrel is really all about.
We might add Mr. Strachey makes no reference in his latest book to his past errors. To these “errors” it seems we must also add, sins of commission and omission.