Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous four posts (hereherehere, and here), is written to serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post should pretty much finish up the draft of the first chapter.

Is Marxian Economics Still Relevant?

It’s an obvious question for those of us living now, in the twenty-first century. Is Marxian economics still relevant?

After all, Marx wrote Capital in the middle of the nineteenth century, when both capitalism and mainstream economics were quite different from what they are today.

Back in the mid-1800s, capitalism was a relatively new way of organizing economic and social life; having emerged first in Great Britain, it still encompassed a small part of the world. As Marx looked around him, he saw both the tremendous progress and the horrendous conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of steam power, gigantic factories, growing cities, and increased production. And thus great wealth, at least on the part of the small group of successful merchants and industrial capitalists at the top of the economic pyramid. But also squalor, malnutrition, low wages, and long working hours for factory workers—men, women, and children.

Radically new ideas both prepared the ground for, and emerged as a result of, the emergence and spread of capitalism. New freedoms, such as the possibility of buying and selling people’s ability to work, and the consequent abolition of slavery, the ownership of human chattel. New forms of political representation, like democracy, which entailed the abolition (or at least the curtailing) of monarchies. And new sciences, including evolutionary biology, first elaborated in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (or, more completely, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).

The world today is, of course, quite different. We take for granted many of the ideas that were once considered radically new. While other ideas, which were barely even imagined at the time, are today considered novel: demands for a guaranteed income, the extension of democracy beyond politics to workplaces, and synthetic biology.

As for capitalism, in some parts of the world, it would be immediately recognizable by nineteenth-century observers. Giant steel mills, workers denied the right to form labor unions, polluted living environments, minds and bodies damaged by demanding and dangerous jobs. Elsewhere, capitalism has changed in many ways, both large and small. Cutting-edge technologies in the twenty-first century include robotics, extended reality, and artificial intelligence. Production of many goods and services is dispersed around the world instead of being concentrated in single factories. And a much larger share of production and of the world’s population—although certainly not all—has become part of capitalism.

And yet. . .The gap between a small group at the top and everyone else is increasing. Workers still labor much longer, even utilizing much more productive technologies, than many had predicted. Squalor, hunger, and poverty are still the condition of many in the world today—to which we need to add the dangers created by the looming climate crisis.

Throughout this book, we will therefore have to ask, is the kind of critique of capitalism that Marx pioneered more than 150 years ago relevant, at least in board outlines, to contemporary economies? And, following on that, in what ways have Marxian economists changed and extended their theory to account for the many changes the world has undergone since the mid-1800s?

Much the same question holds for the Marxian critique of mainstream economics. In what ways might Marx’s original critique of classical political economy be relevant to contemporary mainstream—neoclassical and Keynesian—economics?

As will see in the next chapter, Smith and the other classical political economists made five major claims about capitalism, which Marx in his own writings then criticized. They are, in no particular order, the following:

  1. Capitalism produces more wealth, and thus higher levels of economic development.
  2. Capitalism is characterized by stable growth.
  3. Everybody gets what they deserve within capitalism.
  4. Capitalists are heroes.
  5. Capitalism represents the end of history.

We’ve already touched on the first three in previous sections of this chapter, and we will return to them in some detail in the remainder of the book. For example, capitalism produces more wealth but, Marx argues, it only does so on the basis of class exploitation. Capitalism is inherently unstable because of the private appropriation and distribution of the surplus. And, even if commodities are bought and sold at their values, capitalism is based on a fundamental class injustice, whereby the producers of the surplus are excluded from participating in decisions about that surplus.

What about the other two claims? Capitalists are celebrated but only if they accumulate more capital and thus create the conditions for more wealth and more employment. If they don’t, and that is often the case, then there’s nothing heroic about their activities. As for capitalism representing the end of history—the problem is, it still rests on class exploitation, not unlike feudalism, slavery, and other societies in which workers produce, but do not participate in appropriating, the surplus. That still leaves the possibility of creating an economy without that class injustice.

Those, in short, are Marx’s main criticisms of classical political economy.

Contemporary mainstream economists, as is turns out, makes all five of those claims. They don’t do so in the same manner as the classicals but they make them nonetheless.

  1. Capitalism produces more wealth, and thus higher levels of economic development—and it’s now measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product and GDP per capita.
  2. Capitalism is characterized by stable growth—and the possibility of crises is not even included in contemporary mainstream models.
  3. Everybody gets what they deserve within capitalism—especially when, in the modern view, all “factors of production” receive their marginal contributions to production.
  4. Capitalists are heroes—to which modern mainstream economists add that everyone is a capitalist, since they have to decide how to rationally utilize their human capital.
  5. Capitalism is fundamentally different from previous ways of organizing economic and social life, such as feudalism and slavery—although in one crucial dimension it’s exactly the same: capitalists are just like feudal lords and slaveowners in appropriating the surplus produced by others.

So, while the language and methods of mainstream economics have changed since Marx’s time, many of Marx’s criticisms do seem to carry over to contemporary mainstream economics.

We will see, in the remainder of the book, just exactly how that works.

This Book

The other eight chapters of this book are designed to flesh out and explore in much more detail the issues raised in previous sections of this chapter.

Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics

The aim of this chapter is to explain how the Marxian critique of political economy has, from the very beginning, been a two-fold critique: a critique of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism, the economic system celebrated by mainstream economists. We will discuss the key differences between Marxian and mainstream approaches to economic analysis, both then and now.

Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy

I do not presume that readers will have any background in Marxian economic and social theory. In this chapter, we discover where Marx’s critique of political economy came from—in British political economy, French socialism, and German philosophy—and how his ideas changed and developed in some of the key texts of the “early” Marxian tradition prior to writing Capital.

Chapter 4, Commodities and Money

In this chapter, I will present the material contained in the first three chapters of volume 1 of Capital, perhaps the most difficult and misinterpreted section of that book. Marx begins with the commodity, proceeds to discuss such topics as use-value, exchange-value, and value, presents the problem of “commodity fetishism,” and then introduces money.

Chapter 5, Surplus-Value and Exploitation

The goal of this chapter is to explain how Marx, starting with the presumption of equal exchange, ends up showing how capitalism is based on surplus-value and class exploitation.

Chapter 6, Distributions of Surplus-Value

According to Marx, once surplus-value is extracted from workers, it is then distributed to others for various uses: the “accumulation of capital,” the salaries of corporate executives, the financial sector, and so on. Herein are the origins of the theory of economic growth and the treatment of the role of instability and crises within capitalist economies, as well as the Marxian understanding of the distribution of income.

Chapter 7, Applications of Marxian Economics

How have Marxist concepts been applied to major trends, debates, and events in recent decades? In this chapter, we examine the ways Marxist thinkers, especially younger scholars and activists, have opened up and applied Marxian economics to the theory of the firm, imperialism and globalization, development in the Global South, the role of finance, systemic racism, gendered hierarchies, and the relationship between capitalist and noncapitalist economies in contemporary societies.

Chapter 8, Debates in and around Marxian Economics

Marxian economic theory has, of course, been discussed and debated from the very beginning—by both Marxian and mainstream economists. In this chapter, I present some of the key criticisms of Marxian economics by mainstream economists, focusing in particular on their rejection of the labor theory of value. I also explain some of the key debates among different schools of thought within the Marxian tradition and present their contributions to contemporary Marxian economics.

Chapter 9, Transitions to and from Capitalism

Much to the surprise of many students, Marx (and his frequent collaborator Engels) never presented a blueprint of socialism or communism, either in Capital or anywhere else. However, Marxian economics is based on a clear understanding that capitalism has both a historical beginning and a possible end. In this concluding chapter, I discuss how Marx and later generations of Marxian economists have analyzed both the transition to capitalism (e.g., from feudalism in Western Europe) and the transition to noncapitalism (in the contemporary world).

Before We Dive In

As I wrote above, this book is not written with a presumption that readers have any kind of background in Marxian economic and social theory. Much the same holds for mainstream economic theory. Perhaps some readers will have learned some Marx or mainstream economics in the course of their studies but, if not, everything they need to understand Marxian economics is presented in this book.

Here are some other issues I’d like readers to keep in mind as you work your way through this book.

As is often the case in theoretical debates, the same words often have different meanings. So, for example, the way Marx defines and uses such concepts as markets, value, labor, capital are quite different from what they mean in mainstream economics. To help you make sense of those differences, I have included a brief glossary of terms at the beginning of the book. You should feel free to turn back to it on a regular basis as you work your way through the remaining chapters. In Part 2 of the book (Chapters 4, 5, and 6), all concepts will be carefully defined, while using as little technical jargon as possible. I have also added a couple of technical appendices for readers who want to follow up on the discussion in the main text.

Since we’re dealing with economics, some technical language and illustrations are indispensable. I have kept them to a minimum but readers should be prepared for some statistical charts, a few equations, and a bit of algebra. I’ll pass on the best piece of advice I received as a student: when something doesn’t make sense immediately, be prepared to work it out with paper and pencil.

The context for Marx’s critique of political economy, written in the middle of the nineteenth century, is unfamiliar to many of us in the twenty-first century. How many of us today have read Hegel, after all? The necessary background will be covered later, in Chapters 2 and 3.

While Marx’s name has long been linked with socialism and communism, readers won’t find any kind of blueprint or detailed plan for either idea in Marx’s writings. Nor does any general—valid for all times and places—economic policy or political program follow from his work. That’s a topic we will return to in Chapter 9.

This book is prepared as a stand-alone introduction to Marxian economics. No other texts are necessary to understand the material in this book. However, I have added references (to specific works and chapters) in the event readers want to use this book as a companion text, as they read Capital and other writings by Marx.

Finally, while the book is aimed at students in economics (both undergraduate and post-graduate), it will also be relevant for and accessible to students in other disciplines—such as sociology, geography, history, and cultural studies. My fervent hope is it will also be useful to interested individuals who are not currently college and university students, because a clear and concise introduction to Marxian economics is relevant to their work and lives.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous three posts (here, here, and here), is written to serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

Why study Marxian economics?

One of the best reasons for studying Marxian economics is to understand all those criticisms—the criticisms of mainstream economic theory and the criticisms of capitalism.

Students of economics (and, really, all citizens in the world today) need to have an understanding of where those criticisms came from and what implications they have.

Marx certainly took those criticisms seriously. As he carried out his in-depth study of both the mainstream economic theory and of the capitalist system of his day, his work was influenced by the criticisms that had been developed before he even turned his attention to economics. And then, in turn, Marx’s critique of political economy has influenced generations of economists, students, and activists. While certainly not the only critical theory that can be found within the discipline of economics, Marxian economics has served as a touchstone for many of those theories, not to mention public debates about both economics and capitalism around the world.

Understanding both the broad outlines and the specific steps of Marxian economics is therefore crucial to making sense of all those debates.

Consider a contemporary example. On 26 February 2019, Alexandiria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Ivanka Trump’s attack on her idea of a living wage by explaining that “A living wage isn’t a gift, it’s a right. Workers are often paid far less than the value they create.”

While there’s no evidence that Ocasio-Cortez ever studied Marxian economics (or, for that matter, considers herself a Marxist), certainly the idea that within capitalism workers are often paid less than the value they produce resonates with Marxian criticisms of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism.

Mainstream economists, as any student of contemporary mainstream microeconomics is aware, generally presume that workers’ wages are equal to their marginal contributions to production. The same is true of capitalists’ profits and landlords’ rents. Everyone within a market system, mainstream economists argue (after a great deal of theoretical work, involving lots of equations and graphs), gets what they deserve. Therefore, since capitalism delivers “just deserts,” it should be considered fair.

Not so quick, says Ocasio-Cortez, just like Marx decades before her. If workers are paid less than the value they create, then they are “exploited”—that is, they produce a surplus that goes not to them, but to their employers. And while Marxian economists argue a living wage wouldn’t by itself eliminate that exploitation, it would certainly lessen it and improve workers’ standard of living.

Much the same holds for alternatives to capitalism. They often take their name from some version of socialism (and sometimes communism). That’s why Ocasio-Cortez calls herself a “democratic socialist.” It’s also why so many people these days, especially young people, have positive views of socialism—even more so than capitalism. That represents a big break both from mainstream economists and from their parents and grandparents.

Moreover, many ideas and policies that were once labeled (and then quickly dismissed) as “Marxist” or “socialist” are now accepted parts of the contemporary economic and social landscape. Progressive income taxes, a social security system for retirees, public healthcare and health insurance, minimum wages, labor unions for workers in private industry and public services—all were at one time derided, and now they form part of the common sense of how we think about economic and social policy. Much the same kind of change may now be taking place—for example, with the Green New Deal and the links between contemporary capitalism and the history of slavery.

Marxian Economics Today

So, it’s a fascinating time to be studying Marxian economics. It’s a way of learning some of the main criticisms of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism, now as in the past. It also serves to lift the taboos and learn that there are in fact alternatives to how economics is often taught and used to celebrate the status quo and deny the possibility of other ways of organizing economic and social life.

In the most general sense, studying Marxian economics is a path to learn what it means to be an intellectual. Within modernity, intellectuals are necessarily critical thinkers. Whether professors in colleges and universities or people who work in research units of enterprises or government offices, or really anyone who has to think and make decisions on or off the job, as intellectuals, they have to follow ideas wherever they might go. That means not being afraid of the conclusions they reach or of conflict with the powers that be.

That tradition of critical thinking is in fact what animated the work of Marx (along with Engels). He didn’t have a predetermined path. Instead, he worked his way through existing economic theory, carefully and critically engaging the process whereby mainstream economists produced their extreme conclusions. He then started from the same general premises they did—in a sense, offering mainstream economists their strongest possible case—and showed how it was simply impossible for capitalism to fulfill its stated promises.

For example, capitalism holds up “just deserts” as an ideal—everybody gets what they deserve—but it actually means that most people are forced to surrender the surplus they create to their employers, who are allowed to either keep it (and do with it what they want) or distribute it to still others (the tiny group at the top that manages the way those enterprises operate). Capitalism also pledges stable growth and full employment but then, precisely because of that private control over the surplus, regularly delivers boom-and-bust cycles and throws millions out of work.

So, Marx, following his critical procedure, arrived at quite different conclusions—conclusions that were at odds both with those of mainstream economics and of capitalism itself. And then he kept going—with more reading and more thinking and more political activity. He established some initial ideas, threads that were then picked up and extended by other Marxian economists, right on down to the present.

The implication, of course, is Marx didn’t provide a settled theory, to be simplistically or dogmatically applied, but instead a tradition of critical thinking and action.

And, as we will see over the course of this book, the effects of his work have been felt not just in economics, but in many other academic disciplines, from sociology and anthropology through political science and cultural studies to philosophy and biology. In fact, one of the most famous and influential historians of the nineteenth century, whose books are read by thousands of college and university students around the world every year, is the British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous two posts, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

Beyond the Mainstream

This is certainly not the first time people have looked beyond mainstream economics. There is a long history of criticisms of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism from the very beginning. Although students won’t have read about them in traditional economics textbooks.

Those texts are generally written with the presumption there’s only one economic theory and one economic system. The existence of Marxian economics opens up the debate, creating space for both multiple ways of thinking about economics and a variety of different economic systems.

Criticisms of Mainstream Economic Theory

In the history of economic thought, criticisms of the mainstream approach were formulated early on. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others (such as Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus, and John Stuart Mill) developed classical political economy in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, when the new economic system we now call capitalism was just getting off the ground—and almost immediately their approach was debated and challenged.

The classical political economists developed a labor theory of value to analyze the value of commodities, the goods and services that were bought and sold on markets. They utilized that labor theory of value to then argue that capitalism, based on increasing productivity and free international trade, would lead to the growth of industry and an increase in the wealth of nations.

The early critics of classical political economy included a wide variety of writers, especially in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, from Thomas Carlyle (an English Romantic who expressed his opposition to the market system, because it rewarded “salesmanship” and not hard work) and John Barton (a British Quaker who argued that the introduction of labor-saving machinery would permanently displace workers who would not be absorbed by other branches of industry) to Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (a Swiss historian who viewed capitalism as being detrimental to the interests of the poor and particularly prone to crisis brought about by an insufficient general demand for goods) and Thomas Hodgskin (an English socialist, critic of capitalism, and defender of both free trade and early trade unions).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx (along with his friend and frequent collaborator Friedrich Engels) became a close student of classical political economy, developing his now-famous critique. During the course of his writings, he expressed both admiration for and opposition to the methods and the conclusions of the classical political economists. Over the course of this book, we will examine in considerable detail the ways Marx and later Marxian economists both built on and broke from classical political economy.

But the debate about early mainstream economics didn’t stop there.

In the late 1800s, a new school of economic thought, neoclassical economics was created, which represented both an extension of and break from classical political economy, although in a manner quite different from that of Marx. The early neoclassicals—such as William Stanley Jevons, Karl Menger, and Léon Walras—rejected the classicals’ labor theory of value, in favor of consumer utility, but accepted the classicals’ celebration of capitalism’s rising productivity and free trade. Hence, both the “neo” and the “classical” of their name.

The neoclassical economists’ basic argument was that, if all markets are allowed to operate freely, all consumers would maximize utility, all firms would maximize profits, and the economy as a whole would reach full employment. The “invisible hand” became the central thesis of contemporary mainstream microeconomics.

And it had general validity within mainstream economics until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when in the United States and elsewhere capitalist economies crashed and the unemployment rate soared to over 25 percent. Not surprisingly, the neoclassical orthodoxy was challenged at the time by many economists, including John Maynard Keynes. Keynes’s idea was that, because of fundamental uncertainty, especially on the part of investors, it was highly likely that capitalist economies would regularly operate at less-than-full employment. The need for the “visible hand” of government intervention to achieve full employment was the basis of the mainstream macroeconomics.

Attempts to combine neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics—the invisible hand of markets and the visible hand of government fiscal and monetary policy—have defined mainstream economics ever since. That’s why, today, in most departments, mainstream economics is still taught in two separate courses, microeconomics and macroeconomics. And very few of them include any references to other approaches, especially Marxian economics.

Criticisms of Capitalism

Just as mainstream economic theory has been challenged from the very beginning, so has capitalism, the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists.

Perhaps the most famous early mass movement against capitalism was directed by the Luddites, a radical faction of English textile workers who in the early-nineteenth century attacked mills and destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest against low pay and harsh working conditions. While the name has come to be associated with anyone opposed to the use of new technologies, the actual historical movement objected to machinery that was introduced to speed up production and change the terms of negotiation in favor of employers and against workers.

Later, when workers were able to form labor unions—against a great deal of opposition from their employers and governments that backed those employers—they developed new strategies to challenge the ways they were considered and treated within capitalism. They often demanded higher pay, more secure employment, additional benefits, and even a say in how the enterprises in which they worked were managed. Depending on the situation, they set up picket lines, went on strike, occupied their workplaces, and organized unemployed workers. In many cases, while the workers were primarily concerning with meeting their daily needs, their activities were treated as attacks on capitalism itself.

That was certainly the case in the campaign for an eight-hour workday, which reached its peak in May 1886 in Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally to limit the length of the workday (at the time, workers were regularly required to labor much longer—often 10, 12, or more hours a day, without overtime pay) and then, when the police intervened to disperse the gathering, it became a full-on riot with a number of casualties. Ironically, in commemoration of the rally, 1 May has come to be celebrated around the world as Labor Day—except as it turns out, in the United States, where Labor Day was pushed back to the first Monday in September and no law has ever been passed to limit the length of the workday.

While many of the movements that have challenged capitalism have emerged from, been based on, or allied with workers and labor unions, many others have not. Students may recognize the names of some of the early utopian socialists and utopian experiments (although you probably read about them in courses other than economics): Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and Henry George. Beginning in the nineteenth century, in the United States and around the world, groups of individuals (often, but not always, influenced by various strands of socialist thinking) formed “intentional communities” and cooperative societies. The Shakers (in the United States) and Mondragón (in Spain) are perhaps the best known.

And the list of critics of capitalism—both individuals and movements—goes on. It includes, of course, a wide variety of left-wing populist, socialist, and communist political parties (some of which have come to power, either through democratic elections or revolutions). A fundamental questioning of the capitalist system has also emerged from and influenced many other individuals, groups, and traditions, from civil rights leaders (such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States) and religious groups (for example, the liberation theologians in Latin America) to independence movements (Angola and Mozambique are cases in point) and transnational protests (like Occupy Wall Street).

What can we conclude from this brief survey? From the very beginning, both mainstream economic thought and capitalism have brought forth their critical others.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous post, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

A Tale of Two Capitalisms

Marxian economists recognize, just like mainstream economists, that capitalism has radically transformed the world in recent decades, continuing and in some cases accelerating long-term trends. For example, the world has seen spectacular growth in the amount and kinds of goods and services available to consumers. Everything, it seems, can be purchased either in retail shops, big-box stores, or online. And, every year, more of those goods and services are being produced and sold in markets.

That means the wealth of nations has expanded. Thus, technically, Gross Domestic Product per capita has risen since 1970 in countries as diverse as the United States (where it has more than doubled), Japan (more than tripled), China (almost ten times), and Botswana (where it has increased by a factor of more than 22).

International trade has also soared during the same period. Goods and services that are produced in once-remote corners of the world find their way to customers in other regions. Both physical commodities— such as smart phones, automobiles, and fruits and vegetables—and services—like banking, insurance, and communications—are being traded on an increasing basis between residents and non-residents of national economies. To put some numbers on it, merchandise trade grew from $318.2 billion dollars in 1970 to $19.48 trillion in 2018. And exports of services have become a larger and larger share of total exports—for the world as a whole (now 23.5 percent, up from 15 percent) and especially for certain countries (such as the United Kingdom, where services account for about 45 percent of all exports, and the Bahamas, where almost all exports are services).

The world’s cities are the hubs of all that commerce and transportation. It should come as no surprise that the urbanization of the global population has also expanded rapidly in recent decades, from about one third to now over half. In 2018, 1.7 billion people—23 per cent of the world’s population— lived in a city with at least 1 million inhabitants. And while only a small minority currently reside in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, by 2030 a projected 752 million people will live in so-called megacities, many of them located in the Global South.

We’re all aware that, during recent decades, many new technologies have been invented—in producing goods and services as all well as in consuming them. Think of robotics, artificial intelligence, and digital media. And, with them, new industries and giant firms have emerged and taken off. Consider the so-called Big Four technology companies: Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. They were only founded in the last few decades but, as they’ve continued to grow, they’ve become intertwined with the lives of millions of companies and billions of people around the world.

The owners of those tech companies are, to no one’s amazement, all billionaires. When the first Forbes World Billionaires List was published in 1987, it included only 140 billionaires. Today, they number 2825 and their combined wealth is about $9.4 trillion. That works out to be about $3,300,000,000 per billionaire. Their wealth certainly represents one of the great success stories of capitalism in recent decades.

Finally, capitalism has grown in more countries and expanded into more parts of more countries’ economies over the course of the past 40 years. Both large countries and small (from Russia, India, and China to El Salvador, Algeria, and Vietnam) are more capitalist than ever before. As we look around the world, we can see that the economies of rural areas have been increasingly transformed by and connected to capitalist ways of producing and exchanging goods and services. Global value chains have incorporated and fundamentally altered the lives of millions and millions of workers around the world. Meanwhile, areas of the economy that had been formerly outside of capitalism—for example, goods and services provided by households and government—can now be bought and sold on markets and are the source of profits for a growing number of companies.

But, unlike mainstream economists, Marxists recognize that capitalism’s extraordinary successes in recent decades have also come with tremendous economic and social costs.

All that new wealth of nations? Well, it’s been produced by workers that receive in wages and salaries only a portion of the total value they’ve created. The rest, the surplus, has gone to those at the top of the economic pyramid. So, the distribution of income has become increasingly unequal over time—both within countries and for the world economy as a whole.

According to the the latest World Inequality Report, income inequality has increased in nearly all countries, especially in the United States, China, India, and Russia. In other countries (for example, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil), income inequality has remained relatively stable but at extremely high levels.

At a global level, inequality has also worsened. Thus, for example, the top 1 percent richest individuals in the world captured more than twice as much of the growth in income as the bottom 50 percent since 1980. Basically, the share of income going to the bottom half has mostly stagnated (at around 9 percent), while the share captured by the top 1 percent has risen dramatically (from around 16 percent to more than 20 percent).

And it’s no accident. Inequality has increased because the surplus labor performed by workers, in both rich and poor countries, has not been kept by them but has gone to a small group at the top of the national and world economies.

So, we really are talking about a tale of two capitalisms: one that is celebrated by mainstream economists (but only benefits those in the top 1 percent) and another that is recognized by Marxian economists (who emphasize the idea that the growing wealth of nations and increasing inequality are characteristics of the same economic system).

But that’s not the end of the story. All that capitalist growth has been anything but steady. The two most severe economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s have happened in the new millennium: the Second Great Depression (after the crash of 2007-08) and the Pandemic Depression (with the outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus). In both cases, hundreds of millions of workers around the world were laid off or had their pay cut. Many of them were already struggling to get by, with stagnant wages and precarious jobs, even before economic conditions took a turn for the worse.

And then those same workers had to look up and see one part of the economy recovering—for example, the profits of their employers and shares in the stock market that fueled the wealth of the billionaires—while the one in which they earned their livelihoods barely budged.

Meanwhile, those stunning global cities and urban centers, the likes of which the world has never seen, also include vast slums and informal settlements—parking lots for the working poor. According to the United Nations, over 1 billion people now live in dense neighborhoods with unreliable and often shared access to basic services like water, sanitation and electricity. Many don’t have bank accounts, basic employment contracts, or insurance. Their incomes and workplaces are not on any government agency’s radar.

They’re not so much left behind but, just like their counterparts in the poor neighborhoods of rich countries, incorporated into capitalism on a profoundly unequal basis. They’re forced to compete with one another for substandard housing and low-paying jobs while suffering from much higher rates of crime and environmental pollution than those who live in the wealthy urban neighborhoods. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, a disproportionate number are ethnic and racial minorities and recent immigrants.

The working poor in both urban and rural areas are also the ones most affected by the climate crisis. A product of capitalism’s growth, not only in recent decades, but since its inception, global warming has created a world that is crossing temperature barriers which, within a decade, threaten ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal areas being flooded into inhabitability.

Meanwhile, the democratic principles and institutions that people have often relied on to make their voices heard are being challenged by political elites and movements that are fueled by and taking advantage of the resentments created by decades of capitalist growth. The irony, of course, is many of these political parties were elected through democratic means and call for more, not less, unbridled capitalism as the way forward.

Clearly, the other side of the coin of capitalism’s tremendous successes have been spectacular failures.

So, it should come as no surprise that there’s more interest these days in both criticisms of and alternatives to capitalism. And Marxian economics is one of the key sources for both: for ways of analyzing capitalism that point to these and other failures not as accidents, but as intrinsic to the way capitalism operates as a system; and for ideas about how to imagine and create other institutions, fundamentally different ways of organizing economic and social life.

Young people, especially, have become interested in the tradition of Marxian economics. They’re trying to pay for their schooling, find decent jobs, and start rewarding careers but they’re increasingly dissatisfied with the effects of the economic system they’re inheriting. Mainstream economics seems to offer less and less to them, especially since it has mostly celebrated and offered policies to strengthen that same economic system. Or, within more liberal parts of mainstream economics, offer only minor changes to keep the system going.

Marxian economics offers a real alternative—in terms of criticizing capitalism and the possibility of creating an economic system that actually delivers longstanding promises of fairness and justice.

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I’ve just signed a contract with Polity Press to write a new book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The idea is to publish it in late 2021 or early 2022.

My goal is to write a textbook that can fulfill two purposes: first, a stand-alone book for courses that are focused on Marxian economics or survey courses that have a section devoted to Marxian economics; second, it will also be useful as a companion text in a course that is based on reading all of or major selections from Karl Marx’s Capital. While the book will be aimed at college and university students (both undergraduate and graduate) in economics, it will also be relevant for and accessible to students and professors in other disciplines—such as sociology, geography, history, and cultural studies—as well as to interested individuals outside the academy.

Here then is the proposed outline of chapters:

Part 1, INTRODUCTION TO MARXIAN ECONOMICS

Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today

Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics

Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy

PART 2, MARXIAN VALUE THEORY

Chapter 4, Commodities and Money

Chapter 5, Surplus-Value and Exploitation

Chapter 6, Distributions of Surplus-Value

PART 3, EXTENSIONS AND DEBATES

Chapter 7, Applications of Marxian Economics

Chapter 8, Debates in and around Marxian Economics

PART 4, CONCLUSION

Chapter 9, Transitions to and from Capitalism

The content of much of the manuscript is in my lecture notes, since I taught Marxian economic theory for almost four decades. But some of it is not, and will require exploring a few new areas and topics. My plan is to use this blog to compose the new sections, in 1000-1500-word posts—much as I have been doing for my other book, “Utopia and Critique” (see here). I welcome feedback to any and all of the book-related posts that will appear in the coming months.

When the book is done and accepted, I will post the link for interested readers.

And the necessary disclaimer: these are not sections of the final manuscript. Far from it! They are merely first drafts of some of the material that I will edit later on for the book.

OK, let’s get started. . .

Marxian Economics Today

As you open this textbook, you may be wondering, why should I study Marxian economics?

In the United States and in many other countries, Marxian theory, including Marxian economics, is a controversial topic. That’s certainly been true for the past few decades, when the topic was all but taboo. But beginning with the crash of 2007-08—the Great Recession or what some have called the Second Great Depression—the climate has dramatically changed. More and more people, especially young people, have become interested both in Marxian criticisms of mainstream economics and in possible alternatives to capitalism.

Here’s Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the chairperson of Roubini Global Economics, an economic consultancy firm: “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.”

And then, from the other side of the Atlantic, there’s George Magnus, Senior Economic Adviser to the UBS Investment Bank: “Policy makers struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world would do well to study the works of a long-dead economist: Karl Marx. The sooner they recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism, the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.

Many of us were surprised, including those of us who have spent decades studying and teaching Marxian economics. I did so at the University of Notre Dame for almost 4 decades.

Living and working in the United States, we’d just been through a 30-year period in which Marx and Marxian ideas had been marginalized, in the discipline of economics and in the wider society. Marx was declared either dangerous or irrelevant (or, often, both).

Capitalism was humming along (with, of course, the usual ups and downs) until. . .the Crash of 2008, when the world economy was brought to the brink of disaster. And Marx, almost in a blink of an eye, was relevant again.

To be honest, it wasn’t that Marxists could take all, or even much of, the credit (or blame). It was actually the spectacular failure of mainstream economics that led to this dramatic change.

Mainstream economists failed to predict the crash.

Even more, they didn’t even consider a crash even a remote possibility. The chance of a crisis starting with the housing and banking sectors didn’t even exist in their theoretical framework.

And, once the crash happened, they didn’t really have much to offer. The policy that went along with their models suggested letting the banks sort out the problems on their own. Until, of course, the panic that set in with the failure of Lehman Brothers, which brought first the American economy and then the world economy to the brink of collapse.

The kinds of problems building up for decades simply didn’t figure prominently in mainstream economic theoretical models and empirical analyses. Problems such as:

  • The deregulation of banks and the growth of the financial sector within the U.S. and world economies
  • The housing bubble that was supported by bank loans, and then sliced and diced into collateralized debt obligations and other derivatives
  • The outsourcing of jobs and the decline of labor unions, which if they paid attention at all were seen as freeing up markets

The result of these and other changes in the U.S. economy created, for the first time in U.S. history, a growing gap between steadily growing productivity and stagnant real wages.

And, of course, an increasingly unequal distribution of income, reminiscent of the period just before the first Great Depression, when the share of income received by the richest 10 percent of Americans approached 50 percent of total income, and that of the bottom half of the population hovered in the low teens.

Mainstream economics—neoclassical and Keynesian economists, both microeconomists and macroeconomists—either ignored these issues or explained them away as a matter of efficient markets and good for growth.

The financial sector needed no oversight or regulation, because of the idea of efficient markets (which meant that all risk was calculated into prices, and all participants had all the relevant information)

And inequality was either good for growth or, if seen as a problem, just the inevitable result of technology and globalization, which could be handled by workers acquiring better skills and more education.

Not to mention the fact that both economic history and the history of economic thought—the history of capitalism and the history of thinking about capitalism—had disappeared as relevant areas of training for mainstream economists. As a result, not only had they never read Marx; they’d never read Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, or Hyman Minsky.

Then things changed, especially as the problems cited above never really disappeared, even as stock markets entered another boom period. Marxian criticisms of both capitalism and mainstream economic theory became appropriate topics of discussion and debate again.

Reading Marx

While references to Marxian economics have increased in recent years, there’s no indication commentators have actually read the works of Karl Marx. Perhaps they remember reading the Communist Manifesto at some point in their education but not Marx’s magnum opus Capital. And they certainly haven’t read the scholarly work on Marx.

Perhaps they were afraid to or didn’t know how to, or were just too lazy. But the fact remains the time is ripe for a new reading of Marx’s Capital.

If they did such a reading, what would they find?

They would encounter something quite different from what they—and perhaps you, reading this book—expect. For example, you won’t discover a blueprint for socialism or communism. Nor will you find a set of predictions about how the crises of capitalism would lead to socialism or communism. Or much else that is regularly attributed to Marx and Marxian economics.

What readers would find is a critique of political economy, in two senses: a critique of mainstream economic theory; and a critique of capitalism, the economic system celebrated by mainstream economists. That’s what Marx came up with after spending all those hours reading the classical political economists and the factory reports in the British Museum. And what generations of Marxian economists have been discussing and developing ever since.

Marxian economics is organized around five key ideas: critique, history, society, theories, and class. These are ideas you’ll encounter many times over the course of this book.

Critique: Capital (and the many other economic texts Marx wrote) are less a fully worked-out theory of capitalism than a critique of the ideas—the concepts and models—that are central to mainstream economics. In other words, Marx carefully studied the works of the famous classical economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He used them as his starting-point but then ended up in a very different place, challenging much of what is taken as the “common sense” within economics. You may find yourself questioning some of the key ideas within contemporary mainstream economics during the course of reading this book.

History: Much of mainstream economics is based on models that never really change. Marxian economics is different; it is focused on history—both the history of economic systems and the history of economics ideas—that change over time. Thus, for example, within Marxian economics, capitalism has a history: it didn’t always exist; once it came into existence, it has continued to change; and, at least in principle, capitalism can come to an end, replaced by a fundamentally different way of organizing economic and social life.

Society: Marx’s approach was always about an economy within society, both affecting and being affected by everything else—social rules, political power, cultural norms, and much else. Therefore, different societies (and, for that matter, different parts of society) have different ways of managing economic life, now as in the past. So, they have radically different ways of allocating labor, organizing production, exchanging goods and services, and so on.

Theories: Not only are there different economies and societies; there are also different economic theories. Marxian economics is one, mainstream economics is another. (And there are many others you may have read or heard about: radical, Post Keynesian, feminist, postcolonial, green, and the list goes on.) And economic theories are different from economic systems. So, for example, Marxian and mainstream economists have different theories—they tell different stories, they arrive at different conclusions—about the same economic system. So, as you will see over the course of this book, the Marxian theory of capitalism is very different from the mainstream theory of capitalism.

Class: One of the particular interests of Marx and Marxian economists is class, the particular way workers (for example, wage-laborers under capitalism or serfs within feudalism) perform more labor than they receive to sustain their lives. The rest, the extra or surplus labor, is appropriated and controlled by another, much smaller group (for example, the class or capitalists or feudal lords). Marx created a special name for this: class exploitation.

So, according to Marxian economics, different societies have different class structures, which have changed historically. And Marx was critical of both the mainstream economic theories that deny the existence of exploitation as well as the economic systems in which the class of workers who perform the surplus labor are excluded from making decisions about the surplus.

You can therefore see how there would be, from the very beginning, an animated debate between the advocates of mainstream and Marxian economic theories.

Right now, the United States is mired in an economic depression, the Pandemic Depression, not dissimilar to what happened in the 1930s and again after the crash of 2007-08.

Real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product contracted by an annual rate of 31.7 percent in the second quarter of 2020 (according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis) and at least 27 million American workers are currently unemployed (counting workers continuing to receive some kind of unemployment benefits, according to my own calculations).* By all accounts—from both macroeconomic data and anecdotes reported in the media—the current situation is an economic and social disaster equivalent to what the United States went through during the first and second Great Depressions.

The question is, does mainstream macroeconomics have anything to offer in terms of insights about the causes of the current crises or what should be done to solve them?

Many readers are, I’m sure, skeptical, given the abysmal track record of mainstream macroeconomic thinking in the United States. Going back just a bit more than a decade, to the Second Great Depression, it’s clear that mainstream macroeconomists failed on all counts: they didn’t predict the crash; they didn’t even include the possibility of such a crash within their basic theory or models; and they certainly didn’t know what to do once the crash occurred.

Can they do any better with the current depression?

The example I want to use was recently posted by Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, the author of the best-selling macroeconomics textbook on the market. I know it’s not the most sophisticated (or, if you prefer, technical or detailed) discussion out there but it does matter: next year, thousands upon thousands of students will receive their basic training in mainstream macroeconomic theory and its application to the Pandemic Depression from Mankiw’s text.

It should come as no surprise that Mankiw uses the macroeconomic model—of aggregate demand and supply—he has so laboriously built up over the course of many chapters to examine what he calls “the economic downturn of 2020.” His basic argument is that, first, aggregate demand declined (shifting to the left, from AD1 to AD2) due to a decline in the velocity of money (one of the exogenous variables that, in mainstream moderls, determines aggregate demand), and second, the long-run aggregate supply curve declines (shifts left, from LRAS1 to LRAS2), while the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS) stays the same. The result is a decline in output (the left-facing arrow at the bottom of the diagram).

This is all pretty straightforward stuff. Except: Mankiw wants to argue that it’s the “natural level of output” as represented by the long-run aggregate supply curve, not the perfectly elastic (or horizontal) short-run aggregate supply curve, that shifts to the left. Huh?

His only explanation is that

When a pandemic strikes and many businesses are temporarily closed, aggregate demand falls because people are staying at home rather than spending at those businesses. Because those businesses cannot produce goods and services, the economy’s potential output, as reflected in the LRAS curve, falls as well. The economy moves from point A to point B.

The problem is, there’s nothing in the way Mankiw has derived the long-run aggregate supply curve—from given resources (land, labor, and capital) and technology—that has changed. Instead, the shutdown of many businesses merely means that there’s enormous excess capacity in the economy. The “natural rate of output”—the level of output corresponding to the “natural level of unemployment”—remains as it was.

But Mankiw is trapped by his own model. The benefit of analyzing the current depression in terms of a shift in the long-run aggregate supply curve is that, as soon as the shutdown is lifted, the supply curve shifts back to the right and the economy moves back to its old long-run equilibrium. Problem solved!

And if the long-run aggregate supply curve doesn’t shift back to the right? Well, then, U.S. capitalism has in fact destroyed its resources—especially labor power—and the economy doesn’t recover, at least anytime soon.

Moreover, if he’d shifted the short-run aggregate supply curve (up in the diagram), well, then we’re in the land of inflation—with the price level rising—an even more severe decline in economic activity (smaller than B), and no return to long-run equilibrium. But prices are not, in general rising, which is why he uses the horizontal short-run aggregate supply curve in the first place (to reflect fixed prices, the result of monopoly enterprises).

Not only is Mankiw trapped by the logic of his own model. His analysis—both the model and the accompanying text—leaves out much of what is interesting and important about the Pandemic Depression.

We’ve seen, for example, that U.S. stock markets, after an initial downturn, have soared to new record highs, even as national output declines and unemployment reached numbers of workers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. That doesn’t even warrant a mention in Mankiw’s analysis—which involves a discussion of assistance to workers and small businesses but nothing about the trillions of dollars available to the Treasury and Federal Reserve to bailout large corporations, keep credit flowing, and boost equity markets.

But there’s an even larger problem in Mankiw’s basic model: all downturns, whether recession or depressions, are the result of “accidents.”

Some surprise event shifts aggregate supply or aggregate demand, reducing production and employment. Policymakers are eager to return the economy to normal levels of production and employment as quickly as possible.

And the Pandemic Depression? Well, according to Mankiw, it was “by design.” But the distinction is meaningless: in all cases, the downturn occurs because of something outside the model—by some kind of “shock.”

So, capitalism itself is absolved. In Mankiw’s model, and in mainstream macroeconomics more generally, there’s nothing in capitalism itself—how profit rates behave, what decisions capitalists make, the fragility of the financial sector, obscene levels of inequality, and so on—that causes the economy to collapse.

If we step outside the confines of Mankiw’s model, then we can begin to see how U.S. capitalism, while it did not create the novel coronavirus, certainly produced and exacerbated the destructive effects of the pandemic on the American economy. For example, after decades of neglect of the public healthcare system and attempts to shore up the private provision of healthcare in the United States, the country was ill-prepared to diagnosis and contain the pandemic. Even more, it worsened the already-grotesque inequalities of healthcare—as well as incomes, wealth, and household finances—it had originally created.

That same economic system also left in the hands of private employers—not the government or workers themselves—the decisions of whether to keep workers employed or, as happened across the country, to furlough or lay off tens of millions of their employees. Any to add to the misery: many of the workers who were supposed to be on temporary layoffs are now finding they’ve lost their jobs permanently and are spending more and more time attempting to find new jobs.

None of those pre-existing economic conditions figures in Mankiw’s analysis. They can’t, because they don’t exist within mainstream macroeconomics, which has been studiously constructed precisely to provide a hydraulic model of macroeconomic equilibrium—starting with full employment and price stability, one or another external “shock” that moves the economy away from there, and then automatic mechanisms to return the economy to its original position—on the basis of aggregate demand and aggregate supply.

And that’s how we get Mankiw’s excuse for the Pandemic Depression:

given the circumstances, a large economic downturn was arguably the best outcome that could be achieved.

———

*Millions more workers are either unemployed but not receiving benefits or involuntarily underemployed, working part-time (often with cuts in pay and benefits) when they prefer to be working full-time.

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Mainstream economists and commentators, it seems, are worried that the global economy is going to come crashing down as a result of the COVID crisis. That’s why they’re willing now to consider the possibility that the current crisis is more than a normal recession, more serious even than the so-called Great Recession; in their view, it’s an economic depression.

That, at least, is the argument they present up front. But there’s something else going on, which haunts their analysis—that capitalism itself is now being called into question.

But before we get to that alarming specter, let’s take a look at the logic of their analysis about the current perils to the global economy—starting with the Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, who is basically taking his cues from a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Carmen Reinhart and Vincent Reinhart.*

Their shared view is that the current slowdown is both more severe and more widespread than the crash of 2007-08, and the recovery will be much slower. Therefore, they argue, the COVID crisis represents the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This is a big deal: mainstream economists and commentators are uneasy about invoking the term “economic depression.” They certainly resisted it for the crisis that occurred just over a decade ago, eventually devising a Goldilocks nomenclature, dubbing it the Great Recession (not as hot as the Great Depression but not as cold as a normal recession). As regular readers know, I had no compunction about calling it the Second Great Depression. And, according to their own logic, neither Samuelson nor the Reinharts should have either.

Delong-J-Bradford-Depression-Recession-Chart4 (1)

According to Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke, the financial crisis and recession had led to as big a downward shock to global industrial production in 2008 as the 1929 financial crisis, and had pounded stock market values and world trade volumes harder in 2008-09 than in 1929-30. Thus, from the perspective of the magnitude of the initial shock, the global economy was in at least as dire shape after the crash of 2008 as it had been after the crash of 1929.

Moreover, the downturn that began in 2007-08 was “largely a banking crisis” (as the Reinharts put it) only if they ignore the grotesque levels of inequality that preceded the crash (based on stagnant wages and rising profits)—which in turn fueled the need for credit on the part of workers and the growth of the finance sector that both recycled corporate profits to workers in the form of loans and led to even higher profits, creating in the process a veritable house of cards. At some point, it would all come crashing down. And, eventually, it did.

In any case, Samuelson and the Reinharts are now willing to take the next step and use the dreaded d-word to characterize current events. Here’s how the Reinharts see things:

In its most recent analysis, the World Bank predicted that the global economy will shrink by 5.2 percent in 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently posted the worst monthly unemployment figures in the 72 years for which the agency has data on record. Most analyses project that the U.S. unemployment rate will remain near the double-digit mark through the middle of next year. And the Bank of England has warned that this year the United Kingdom will face its steepest decline in output since 1706. This situation is so dire that it deserves to be called a “depression”—a pandemic depression.

And Samuelson does them one better:

In one respect, the Reinharts have underestimated the parallels between the today’s depression and its 1930s predecessor. What was unnerving about the Great Depression is that its causes were not understood at the time. People feared what they could not explain. The consensus belief was that business downturns were self-correcting. Surplus inventories would be sold; inefficient firms would fail; wages would drop. The survivors of this brutal process would then be in a position to expand.

Something similar is occurring today.

Clearly, Samuelson and even more the Reinharts are worried that the global economy—their cherished vision of the free movement of capital (but not people) and expanding trade according to comparative advantage—is currently being imperiled and may not recover for years to come. The volume of world trade is down; the prices of many exports have fallen; corporate debt is climbing; and the reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers is massive and still growing. The prospects for a return to business as usual are indeed remote.

That’s pretty straightforward stuff, and anyone who’s looking at the numbers can’t but agree. What we’re witnessing is in fact a Pandemic—or, in my view, a Third Great—Depression.

But that’s when things start to get interesting. Because the Reinharts do understand (although I doubt Samuelson does, since he’s really only concerned about government deficits) that, when you resurrect the term depression and invoke the analogy of the 1930s, you also call forth widespread discontent, massive protest movements, and challenges to capitalism itself. Here’s how they see it:

The economic consequences are straightforward. As future income decreases, debt burdens become more onerous. The social consequences are harder to predict. A market economy involves a bargain among its citizens: resources will be put to their most efficient use to make the economic pie as large as possible and to increase the chance that it grows over time. When circumstances change as a result of technological advances or the opening of international trade routes, resources shift, creating winners and losers. As long as the pie is expanding rapidly, the losers can take comfort in the fact that the absolute size of their slice is still growing. For example, real GDP growth of four percent per year, the norm among advanced economies late last century, implies a doubling of output in 18 years. If growth is one percent, the level that prevailed in the shadow of the 2008–9 recession, the time it takes to double output stretches to 72 years. With the current costs evident and the benefits receding into a more distant horizon, people may begin to rethink the market bargain.

Now, it’s true, their stated fear is that “populist nationalism” will disrupt multilateralism, open economic borders, and the free flow of capital and goods and services across national boundaries. That’s as far as their stated thinking can go.

But the apparition that lurks in the background is that rethinking the “market bargain”—what elsewhere I have called the “pact with the devil,” that is, giving control of the surplus to the top 1 percent as long as they made decisions to create jobs, fund schools and healthcare, and be able to tackle problems like the novel coronavirus pandemic so that the majority of people could lead decent lives—will mean expanding criticisms of capitalism and the search for radical alternatives.

That’s the real specter that haunts the Pandemic Depression.

 

*Samuelson sees the wife-and-husband Reinharts as “heavy hitters” among economists:  “She is a Harvard professor, on leave and serving as the chief economist of the World Bank; he was a top official at the Federal Reserve and is now chief economist at BNY Mellon.”

unions

It’s clear, at least to many of us, that if the United States had a larger, stronger union movement things would be much better right now. There would be fewer cases and deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic, since workers would be better paid and have more workplace protections. There would be fewer layoffs, since workers would have been able to bargain for a different way of handling the commercial shutdown. And there would be more equality between black and white workers, especially at the lower end of the wage scale.

But, in fact, the American union movement has been declining for decades now, especially in the private sector. Just since 1983, the overall unionization rate has fallen by almost half, from 20.1 percent to 10.3 percent. That’s mostly because the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has decreased dramatically, from 16.8 percent to 6.2 percent. And even public-sector unions have been weakened, declining from a high of 38.7 percent in 1994 to 33.6 percent last year.

The situation is so dire that even Harvard economist Larry Summers (along with his coauthor Anna Stansbury) has had to recognize that the “broad-based decline in worker power” is primarily responsible for “inequality, low pay and poor work conditions” in the United States.*

Summers is, of course, the extreme mainstream economist who has ignited controversy on many occasions over the years. The latest is when he was identified as one as one of Joe Biden’s economic advisers back in April. Is this an example, then, of a shift in the economic common sense I suggested might be occurring in the midst of the pandemic? Or is it just a case of belatedly identifying the positive role played by labor unions now that they’re weak and ineffective and it’s safe for to do so?

I’m not in a position to answer those questions. What I do know is that the theoretical framework that informs Summers’s work has mostly prevented him and the vast majority of other mainstream economists from seeing and analyzing issues of power, struggle, and class exploitation that haunt like dangerous specters this particular piece of research.

Let’s start with the story told by Summers and Stansbury. Their basic argument is that a “broad-based decline in worker power”—and not globalization, technological change, or rising monopoly power—is the best explanation for the increase in corporate profitability and the decline in the labor share of national income over the past forty years.

Worker power—arising from unionization or the threat of union organizing, firms being run partly in the interests of workers as stakeholders, and/or from efficiency wage effects—enables workers to increase their pay above the level that would prevail in the absence of such bargaining power.

So far, so good. American workers and labor unions have been under assault for decades now, and their ability to bargain over wages and working conditions has in fact been eroded. The result has been a dramatic redistribution of income from labor to capital.

labor share

Clearly, as readers can see in the chart above, using official statistics, the labor share of national income fell precipitously, by almost 10 percent, from 1983 to 2020.**

profit rate

Not surprisingly, again using official statistics, the profit rate has risen over time. The trendline (the black line in the chart above), across the ups and downs of business cycles, has a clear upward trajectory.***

Over the course of the last four decades is that, as workers and labor unions have been decimated, corporations have been able to pump out more surplus from their workers, thereby lowering the wage share and increasing the profit rate.

But that’s not how things look in the Summers-Stansbury world. In their view, worker power only gives workers an ability to receive a share of the rents generated by companies operating in imperfectly competitive product markets. So, theirs is still a story that relies on exceptions to perfect competition, the baseline model in the world of mainstream economic theory.

And that’s why, while their analysis seems at first glance to be pro-worker and pro-union, and therefore amenable to the concerns of dogmatic centrists, Summers and Stansbury hedge their bets by references to “countervailing power,” the risk of increasing unemployment, and “interferences with pure markets” that “may not enhance efficiency” if measures are taken to enhance worker power.

Still, within the severe constraints imposed by mainstream economic theory, moments of insight do in fact emerge. Summers and Stansbury do admit that the wage-profit conflict that is at the center of their story does explain the grotesque levels of inequality that have come to characterize U.S. capitalism in recent decades—since “some of the lost labor rents for the majority of workers may have been redistributed to high-earning executives (as well as capital owners).” Therefore, in their view, “the decline in labor rents could account for a large fraction of the increase in the income share of the top 1% over recent decades.”

The real test of their approach would be what happens to workers’ wages and capitalists’ profits in the absence of imperfect competition. According to Summers and Stansbury, workers would receive the full value of their marginal productivity, and there would be no need for labor unions. In other words, no power, no struggle, and no class exploitation.

That’s certainly not what the world of capitalism looks like outside the confines of mainstream economic extremism. It’s always been an economic and social landscape of unequal power, intense struggle, and ongoing class exploitation.

The only difference in recent decades is that capital has become much stronger and labor weaker, at least in part because of the theories and policies produced and disseminated by mainstream economists like Summers and Stansbury. Now, as they stand at the gates of hell, it may just be too late for their extreme views and the economic and social system they have so long celebrated.

*The link in the text is to the column by Summers and Stansbury published in the Washington Post. That essay is based on their research paper, published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

**We need to remember that the labor share as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes incomes (such as the salaries of corporate executives) that should be excluded, since they represent distributions of corporate profits.

***I’ve calculated the profit as the sum of the net operating surpluses of the nonfinancial and domestic financial sectors divided by the net value added of the nonfinancial sector. The idea is that the profits of both sectors originate in the nonfinancial sector, a portion of which is distributed to and realized by financial enterprises. The trendline is a second-degree polynomial.

Special mention

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Three and a half weeks ago, Bernie Sanders became the last challenger to drop out of the race, thus clearing the way for Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee on the November presidential ballot.

Since then, the novel coronavirus has engulfed the country (and, of course, the world), the U.S. economy has mostly come to a standstill, and tens of million American workers have joined the ranks of the unemployed, while “essential” workers are forced to commute to and labor in perilous conditions and jobless families have found it necessary to walk or take to their cars to wait in line by the thousands outside food banks.

Biden therefore has to find a way of presenting a progressive alternative to Trump by articulating some clear ideas, and perhaps eventually a detailed plan, to confront the most dramatic economic and social crises to face the United States since the first Great Depression.

Given the fact that Biden was the first choice of the conservative Democratic establishment, which breathed a sigh of relief when he and not Sanders (or, for that matter, Elizabeth Warren) became the presumptive nominee, he was quickly warned that he needed to pay attention to and incorporate ideas from progressive movements inside and outside the party.

Just hours after Sanders ended his campaign, seven groups made up of young left-wing activists—the Alliance for Youth Action, Justice Democrats, the March for Our Lives Action Fund, NextGen America, Student Action, the Sunrise Movement, and United We Dream Action—sent an open letter to Biden with a set of demands spanning policy and personnel to earn their support in the general election against Donald Trump.

Messaging around a “return to normalcy” does not and has not earned the support and trust of voters from our generation. For so many young people, going back to the way things were “before Trump” isn’t a motivating enough reason to cast a ballot in November. And now, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed not only the failure of Trump, but how decades of policymaking has failed to create a robust social safety net for the vast majority of Americans.

And then, a few weeks later, Bloomberg revealed that one of Biden’s economic advisers was none other than. . .Larry Summers.

As it turns out, Summers was the first name on the “Biden Do Not Reappoint” (or, alternatively, Do Not Resuscitate) list published last month by Robert Kuttner, who wrote that Summers in 2009 “not only lowballed the necessary economic stimulus and ended it prematurely, but he successfully fought for rescuing the biggest banks rather than taking them into temporary receivership.”

The response to Bloomberg’s scoop was quick and equally categorical. In a joint statement, two of the organizations that signed the open letter—Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement—announced they were launching a petition asking Biden to disavow Summers, whom the groups noted has a long history of advocating for harmful economic policies and a record of bigoted statements. And David Sirota, senior adviser and speechwriter on the Sanders campaign, tweeted that Biden “has chosen as his economic adviser the main Democratic proponent of the China PNTR deal and Wall Street deregulation. Apparently, Biden may really have meant it when he said ‘nothing will fundamentally change’.”

What is it about Summers that provokes such ire from progressive individuals and movements?

Perhaps the best place to begin is the piece that Michael Hirsh published in the National Journal back in 2013, when Barack Obama was considering Summers as the replacement for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke. Hirsh noted that while “on paper, Summers is a superb candidate to succeed Bernanke in a post that the brilliant 58-year-old Harvard professor has pined for since his earliest days in Washington, he was “a very risky choice for chairman.”*

Why? Hirsh presented two main reasons: First, Summers often used his power and intellectual arrogance “to bully opponents into silence, even when they have been proved right.” Second, he had committed “a lot of errors in the past 20 years”—from his moves to deregulate Wall Street in the administration of Bill Clinton to the too-tepid response to the Second Great Depression under Obama—and “yet in no instance has Summers ever been known to publicly acknowledge a mistake.”**

Hirsh’s article played an important role—in addition to opposition from four Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee—in forcing Summers to withdraw his name from consideration for the post.***

As regular readers know, I have had my own running battle with Summers and his economic views on this blog. For example, I challenged him on the idea that inequality is necessary consequence of entrepreneurship; that capitalism has no inherent flaws and the problems of unemployment, inequality, and so on “can be addressed with proper fiscal and monetary policies”; that Summers, unlike most academics, has been very well paid to play on behalf of those who have a big stake in what’s being debated inside and outside the academy; that his “belated, poorly thought-out, population-driven ‘discovery’ of the possibility of secular stagnation” received undeserved accolades from other mainstream economists; that the cure for secular stagnation does not reveal a flaw in capitalism but instead has an easy fix, an increase in government-financed infrastructure spending; and finally that workers’ compensation depends on productivity growth and therefore it’s not necessary—and perhaps even counter-productive—to shift attention from growth to solving the problem of inequality.

More recently, Summers joined fellow Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw in criticizing the kind of wealth taxes that were proposed by Sanders and Warren (as scored by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman)—because, among other things, wealthy people can avail themselves of many ways to avoid such taxes (thus reducing the projected revenues) and because closing loopholes would “involve placing limits on the ability to be charitable or to establish trusts for the benefits of grandchildren.”****

The fact is, Summers continues to represent, from his perch at Harvard, both the theoretical blinders and bullying stance of mainstream economics as well as the rush to return to “business as usual” within the Democratic Party.

If Biden wants to signal to wealthy donors and large corporations and banks that, if he somehow manages to defeat Trump in November, “nothing will fundamentally change,” then he really can’t do better than to stick with Summers.

 

*Back in 2013, my own choice, for what it’s worth, was Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Raskin.

**As I wrote in 2009, those characteristics (which Cornel West described as “a braininess that lacks wisdom and vision” and “a smartness that lacks a sensitivity to the poor and the marginal”) are a good description of most mainstream economists I have come across over the years.

***Kuttner, in a more recent piece, wrote that “After Summers personally complained to David Bradley, then the publisher of Atlantic Media, which owned National Journal, Hirsh was advised to seek other work—he ended up moving to Politico and then to Foreign Policy, though no errors were ever found in the Summers piece and no correction was ever issued.”

****If readers want to follow the debate, here is a link to the rejoinder by Saez and Zucman (pdf) and a follow-up response by Summers and his coauthor Natasha Sarin.