Tag Archives: Economics

Notes from Michael Heinrich on Capital

Michael Heinrich’s “Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” is a fascinating short introduction to Marx’s ‘critique’. There are a number of key insights which I want to capture here.

Chapter three goes into detail on the nature of value. Heinrich draws a distinction between what he calls a traditional Marxist ‘substantialist’ view and value as developed as a social relation through the act of exchange. In the ‘substantialist’ view value is understood as a property of each individual commodity, created during production. In Heinrich’s view this is not what Marx is getting at. Instead value is determined by “socially necessary” labour time, and what is socially necessary can only be determined in exchange where the individual labour of producers is compared to the total labour of society.

“abstract labour is a relation of social validation existing only in exchange… value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself.”

“The substance of value… is something only obtained by things when they are set into relation with one another in exchange.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.53)

“this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.73)

This emphasis on value as a social relation and not an eternal property of individual commodities chimes well with Marx’s statement that under capitalism, commodities represent:

“the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

(Marx 1990, p.165)

Heinrich defines the substantialist view as a ‘pre-monetary’ theory of value, one which sees value as part of the commodity and money as a passive practical way to simplify the process of exchange. Marx’s theory is rather a ‘monetary’ one. Commodities cannot be related to each other without the value form that is money.

In chapter 7 Heinrich touches on the equalisation of the rate of profit, something which I felt I didn’t really understand on a first reading of Marx, defining the link between the amount of surplus value generated and the actual profit received by an individual capitalist. If commodities actually exchange at or near their true value then different rates of surplus value must mean that capitalists in different branches of production receive differing rates of profit.

As explained by Heinrich rates of profit are equalised in process similar to “supply and demand”. Assuming that capital is able to move between different branches of production, then individual capitalists will gravitate away from areas with lower rates of profit and towards those with higher rates. As supply increases in the areas with higher profit rates, prices will fall and vice versa. The result establishes an average or general rate of profit. To the individual capitalist this process disguises surplus value as the actual source of profit, making it appear that profit is a premium added to the cost of producing it.

“The actual profit of an individual capital… thus seems on the one hand to depend upon objective conditions (market prices) and on the other hand on the subjective skill of the capitalist in producing at a low cost of production. The fact that profit rests on the appropriation of surplus value is not apparent.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.147)

Most importantly of all, this transition from value to price is a transition from one level of description to another. To see the dialectic whole from a different angle. Value mediates the relationship of individual labour to the labour of the whole of society. Price and profit mediate the relationship of individual capital to the total social capital. They are different poles of the same social relationship.

Heinrich argues that Marx has not proven that the rate of profit is bound to fall over the long term (Heinrich 2012, p.151) on the basis that while it is likely that the organic composition of capital is increase, Marx assumes that the rate of surplus value will remain at least stable thereby leading to a falling rate of profit. In fact it is possible that the rate of surplus value may increase, or at least fall more slowly than the organic composition of capital rises either one of which will mean that the rate of profit does not fall.

On crises Heinrich outlines an “underconsumptionist” view. The unrestricted nature of production struggles to realise value in a world where the income of most people is constrained.

“The tendency for an unlimited extension of production confronts an ability to consume in society that is limited in a variety of ways.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.172)

“a potentially unlimited reproduction confronts a limited consumption… The consequence is a tendency towards the overproduction of commodities… and the over-accumulation of capital.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.173)

This leads to crisis as value cannot be realised in the market, leading to the destruction of social wealth but also conversely an increase in the rate of profit for the remaining capitals and a eventually a renewed upturn often driven by technological changes which improved profitability.

In the final chapter, Heinrich offers some thoughts on how Marx envisaged a communist society working. This is of interest as a rule Marx did not write much about what would come after capitalism. For Heinrich there are two key differences. First that society is no longer based on exchange. Capital, commodities, and money no longer exist. Second humanity is emancipated from a social structure that develops a life of it’s own and impose itself upon each individual. The social relations which generate fetishism must disappear with society organised as an “association of free men”.

Heinrich contrasts this with traditional Marxism-Leninism based on changing distribution patterns which remains dependent on a central authority, with the people becoming a passive object of the party’s policies.

Finally Marx:

“emphasises the massive development of productivity on the basis of science and technology, as well as the comprehensive development of the abilities of the workers as essential preconditions for the transition to a communist society.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.223)

Heinrich, Michael An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012).

Marx, Karl Capital, A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin, London, 1990)


Review: An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital

This is a superb summary of the key points made by Marx across the three volumes of Capital. Heinrich is clear from the start that he seeks to avoid the simplifications of the one-time ‘orthodox’ Marxism-Leninism of the defunct Soviet Union. The analysis is sharp, succinct, and up to date.

This is not a companion to the book itself, in the way that David Harvey’s two volume “Companion” is. What Harvey provides is a walkthrough, a genuine companion on the road as you work through each chapter. His goal is to encourage you to read Marx as a work of literature and on his own terms.

By contrast Heinrich takes you away from the book itself to summarise and draw out the principle conclusions. He looks beyond the debates of the past within organised communism to assess Marx’s analysis from a modern dispassionate perspective. His section on the development of value within capitalism as a social relation I found especially insightful. Heinrich also does an excellent job of drawing together the three volumes to explain what Marx is attempting in each, while showing how they join to create a overarching analysis.

The focus throughout is on the categories and structures of Marx’s economics rather than his philosophical approach. Heinrich specifically attacks the use of the word ‘dialectics’ in simple Marxism-Leninism as a way of saying ‘this is complex’. Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” would make a useful companion work, covering as it does Marx’s method rather than the specifics of his economic analysis.

In brief, a superb short outline of Marx’s economic analysis as laid out in the three volumes of Capital.

Heinrich, Michael An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012).

The ‘moments’ of Marx

David Harvey’s most recent book is a superb short introduction to the analysis laid out by Marx in Capital, almost like a summary of his ‘Companion’ to the three volumes of Capital (Harvey 2010, Harvey 2013).

One of the concepts that I really like about Harvey’s analysis is the idea of there being seven different aspects or ‘moments’ to Marx’s analysis in Capital. I think this fits well with the outline of Marx’s use of dialectics given by Ollman. In particular, Harvey writes that to see any one aspect as dominant or determining misses the point:

The grand contest as to whether the productive forces or social relations should be viewed as the prime mover of capitalist development misses the point. It fails to situate Marx’s study of technology in the context of the totality of relations that constitute a capitalist social formation. It also assumes, for no good reason, that there must be a prime mover.

(Harvey 2017, p. 112).

The analysis of capital should be seen as a totality in all it’s complexity. To help with this Harvey takes a footnote from volume 1 (Marx 1990, p. 493 note 4) to identify seven ‘moments’, each representing a different angle from which to view the structure of capital.

These seven moments are:

  • Relation to nature;
  • Technology;
  • Modes of production;
  • Social relations;
  • Reproduction of daily life;
  • Mental conceptions of the world;
  • Institutional arrangements (added by Harvey).

(Harvey 2010, p. 195)

The most important thing here is to see these elements not as a list, but as the separate facets of a single structure. Something like the faces of a seven sided dice, or seven different windows onto the interior of the same building. The structure itself is a single building, a united whole, which we can view from each of these angles and gain a slightly different perspective through each. Each one interacts with all the others, and any comprehensive analysis must account for all of them.

To argue that any one of these determines the nature of society therefore misses the point. Each one expresses an element of the whole. As Harvey notes:

No one moment prevails over the others, even as there exists within each moment the possibility for autonomous development… All these elements coevolve and are subject to perpetual renewal and transformation as dynamic moments within the totality.

(Harvey 2010, p. 196).

This it seems to me is the essence of Marx’s dialectical analysis. A complex and multi-faceted whole, that can be approached from a number of different angles each of which provides insight and helps us to approach the whole but none of which actually constitute or determine that whole. It provides a framework or reference for analysis, and therefore a key element in Marx’s relevance for today.

Harvey, David Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, London, 2017).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 1 (Verso, London, 2010).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2 (Verso, London, 2013).

Marx, Karl Capital, A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1 (Penguin, London, 1990).

A new mode of production?

Carlota Perez’ chapter in “Rethinking Capitalism” presents an analysis of change and growth in modern capitalism and the potential for a new phase of innovation developing green growth.

Perez uses an analysis similar to Kondratiev long waves and influenced by Schumpeter to break what is sometimes perceived to be continuous technological innovation under capitalism into  a number of distinct phases, each following a recognisable pattern from invention to installation and deployment. Perez shows how each phase is punctuated by a predictable bubble followed by bust and recession. After the failure of this initial wave of investment comes a ‘golden age’ as the technology matures and is deployed across the economy before gradually stagnated. The successive waves start with the initial industrial revolution based on water power and canals, then the development of steam and iron. Steel and chemicals drive another surge in the late 19th century

Perez argues that orthodox economic modelling fails to account for this essentially dynamic and changing nature of capitalism. Instead standard models assume a system based on equilibrium, tending to return to the current historic trend and explaining deviation from this by looking for external influences. In other words they are fundamentally static, predicting that the status quo will continue forever. But we know – and Perez demonstrates – that capitalism has not remained static through it’s history and that the future, with the impacts of automation and climate change, will not be the same as the economic system we experience today.

I believe that what Perez is theorising is what in Marxist terms might be termed changes to the mode or production – albeit within the overall structure of capitalism. While property relations – and therefore the relations of production in Marxist terms – have remained broadly the same over the last 200 years or so, the technologies of production have been subject to profound development and transformation. Although the overarching description “capitalism” is still valid there can be no doubt that the world is a different place than it was in 1800 or 1900.

Perez is proposing that a theory of change is introduced into ‘modern’ economic thinking. Something that Marx was proposing 150 years ago, along with theorising the mechanisms by which it comes about and how it interacts with wider society. Meanwhile the economic models on which policy making is based on locked into the same static view of the world that Marx criticised so mercilessly.

Rethinking Capitalism Jacobs, M. and Mazzucato, M. (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2016)

A short “future left” reading list

After a recent conversation with my dad, I decided to capture in one short post a reading list for anyone interested in future strategies for the modern left.

First for the long view analysis of where we are and how we got here, start with Robert Brenner’s “The Economics of Global Turbulence” (which I wrote a post about a short while ago) and a superb article by Wolfgang Streeck in New Left Review.

For some philosophical underpinning this article by Slavoj Zizek from 2000 with it’s critique of the “third way” and foreseeing it’s failure and the subsequent delivery of the working class to the far right. Also his “Living in the End Times“.

For the impact of this on practical politics and how the changes in the economy have changed politics on the left Owen Jones’ “Chavs” and Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics”.

And for what a programme for the modern left might look like, how it might be built, and what theory and technology need to underpin it Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism” and Srnicek and Williams “Inventing the Future”. For a slightly more philosophical approach to the need for a modern left see “Crowds and Party” by Jodi Dean.

And if you only read one book from the list, make it “Inventing the Future”, which is a truly superb analysis of where the left is and what it might do next.

It is worth pointing out that I don’t at present feel that Corbyn and those currently in charge of the Labour party are in tune with the thinking in these books at all. In fact they seem keener on re-fighting the battles of past years, a strategy surely bound to fail.

Accumulated Past Labour and Post Capitalism

Capitalism as a system is based on the continuous accumulation of wealth through the appropriation of surplus labour. One consequence of this is the steady growth in the stock of capital driving enormous changes in productivity. British steel, currently in the news, demonstrates this clearly. Output may have fallen by just over half in the last 40 years from 29m tonnes to 12.5m tonnes, but over the same period the number of people employed dropped by 90%, implying a dramatic increase in productivity over the same period.

This steady accumulation of the outputs of past labour, when held in private ownership, stands opposed to the living. It becomes something which both ensures the continuation of the owner-owned relationship and conditions what work means so that it becomes possible to talk about a half-mile long rolling mill controlled by a shift of 12 workers. In other words it has both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect.

The domination of the past over the present is a theme in Marx discussed in Fredric Jameson’s “Representing Capital”, a book which I reviewed a short while ago. As Jameson writes, it is not the structural relationship between the worker and their tools which is significant, but the sheer volume of capital set in motion. The human becomes an adjunct to the tools with the rhythm of work dictated by the needs of machinery.

“The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable.”

(“Representing Capital”, Jameson, Verso London 2014, p. 102)

The past is therefore ever-present and “towers above” the worker dwarfing “even his collective presence” (ibid). When the means of (re)production are so massive their private ownership is an almost insurmountable barrier to change.

It is however this vast accumulation, and the productivity potential which it brings, that forms one of the key planks underpinning the strand of “post-capitalism” thinking on the left – exemplified in books by Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Modern productive capacity has the potential to truly change the way society is organised, but the structure of existing social relations left unchanged seem likely to lead instead to rising inequality and unemployment as automation becomes more prevalent.

As Srnicek & Williams write:

“Today we see the occluded potential of this approach everywhere, in the fact that the technologies for achieving classic leftist goals (reduced work, increased abundance, greater democratic control) are more available than ever before. The problem is that they remain encased within social relations that obscure these potentials and render them impotent.”

(“Inventing the Future”, Srnicek & Williams, Verso London 2015, p. 150)

The challenge for the left then is how to build a movement which might break these social relations and create something else to take advantage of this potential. Both Srnicek & Williams and Mason have suggestions for how this might be achieved but it is still not clear how a movement which is both intellectually coherent and yet also an ‘organic’ mass movement of the people can be realised – something with Srnicek & Williams rightly identify as a key failing of “Occupy” and other modern protest movements.

Technology, Growth, and Post-Capitalism

Robert Brenner’s book “The Economics of Global Turbulence” is built around the thesis that the developments in the global economy since 1945 have been driven by systemic overcapacity within manufacturing, driving down the rate of profit. The various responses from within the leading capitalist countries have failed to deliver the theoretically expected response – the shift of investment into alternative industries, allowing the economy to adjust to demand through the closure of firms – delivering production which is rebalanced into the equilibrium which orthodox economists believe markets tend towards.

Brenner’s analysis is therefore fundamentally Marxist in approach. He stresses the drivers creating an inherent tendency for the rate of profit to fall based on the response to competitive pressure, meaning that companies are unlikely to exit the field as predicted by orthodox theory but will persist with lower rates of profit for longer than expected periods of time. Government policies have failed to resolve this long term decline either by Keynesian demand management (which simply allows the less competitive companies to survive, continuing the overcapacity) or fiscal and monetary tightening (which creates an economic environment in which reinvesting in other production lines is unlikely). The inability of capitalism to coordinate activity across the economy has resulted in serious and persistent imbalance.

In other words, the global economy since 1945 has not shown a tendency towards equilibrium. Rather the mechanics of capitalism have produced a long slow decay – termed the “long downturn” by Brenner – with moments of crisis precipitated by changing policy responses and the changing global (im)balance between the major capitalist nations.

Since the neo-liberal revolution, these policies have been driven by the orthodox belief that declining profit rates have been caused by over-generous wages and welfare systems. The sustained assault pursued over more than 30 years on earnings and conditions of employment have has however failed to deliver sustained improvement in profit rates. But it has provided quite effective support for asset holders. As Brenner notes in one example:

“[E]ven contemporary economic orthodoxy has failed to establish that inflation rates of up to 8 percent have any negative impact on the economy’s vitality… [T]here is no evidence that reducing inflation below 8 percent yields any gains whatsoever in terms of growth or living standards. For this reason, there are strong grounds for believing that the grand crusade to control inflation, while very costly to most people, has had little positive effect, except, of course, for the owners and lenders of capital.”

“The Economics of Global Turbulence” p.253, Robert Brenner, Verso, London 2006.

Recent writing by Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streeck (among others) has talked of the gradual death of capitalism and the growing emergence of a ‘post capitalist’ world, driven at least partially on capitalism’s failure to deliver a sustained rate of growth, and the impact of the policies pursued across capitalist countries to address the manifest problems. Brenner provides a detailed review of analysis of statistics that could provide a concrete underpinning for this viewpoint.

Brenner takes issue however with one of the proposed causes underlying the slow decline of capitalism, namely the long development swings associated with technological development. This view emphasises that economic growth in the past has been delivered by spurts of innovation, from the original industrial revolution on, and that in the absence of another bout of new technology to spur the economy forward long term decline is inevitable. Brenner considers this view Malthusian, and outlines clearly that the statistics do not support it when the cycle of growth across different countries is considered. In fact it is the inability of a global capitalist economy to coordinate and plan activity which prevents it from being able to take advantage of technological change, and also constricts it’s ability to remain dynamic.

“Continuity of technical change, but a reduction in the ability to make use of it”

“The Economics of Global Turbulence” p.243, Robert Brenner, Verso, London 2006.

Updated for the Verso edition in 2006, Brenner extends his analysis to cover the period from the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000-1 to 2006. He identifies the continuation of the tendencies towards manufacturing overcapacity – driven now by the massive growth of China taking a growing share of the global market through low labour costs and an undervalued renminbi. Meanwhile, the US economy is sustained by facilitating a series of financial asset bubbles, most recently in domestic housing, and endemic trade deficits. Brenner highlights the instability this is likely to cause, and of course we all know how this story ended.