Posts Tagged ‘Marx’


Mark Tansey, Recourse (2011)

One of the great advantages of economics graduate programs outside the mainstream (like the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I did my Ph.D.) is we were encouraged to read, listen to, and explore ideas outside the mainstream—especially the liberal mainstream.

The liberal mainstream at the time, not unlike today, consisted of neoclassical microeconomics (with market imperfections) and a version of Keynesian macroeconomics (which was, in the usual IS-LM models, best characterized as hydraulic or bastard Keynesianism). Essentially, what liberal economists offered was a theory of a “mixed economy” that could be made to work—both premised on and promising “just deserts” and stable growth—with an appropriate mix of private property, markets, and government intervention.

For many of us, liberal mainstream economics was a dead end—uninspired and uninspiring both theoretically and politically. Theoretically, it marginalized history (both economic history and the history of economic thought) and ignored the exciting methodological debates taking place in other disciplines (from discussions of paradigms and scientific revolutions through criticisms of essentialism and determinism to fallibilist mathematics and posthumanism). And politically, it ignored many of the features of real capitalism (such as poverty, inequality, and class exploitation) and rejected any and all alternatives to capitalism (in a liberal version of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative”).

Then as now, what liberal economists offer was, as Gerald Friedman has recently pointed out, a “political economy of despair.”

The reaction to my paper — the casual and precipitous conclusion that it must be wrong because it projects a sharply higher rate of GDP growth — comes from the assumption that the economy is already at full employment and capacity output. It is assumed that were output significantly below full employment, then prices would fall to equilibrate the two. This is the political counsel of despair. It is based on classical economic theory and the underlying acceptance of Say’s Law of Markets (named for the great Classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say), which says that total supply of goods and services and the total demand for goods and services will always be equal. The shoe market creates the right amount of demand for shoes — it works out so neatly that the true measure of the supply of shoes, of potential output, can be taken by measuring actual output. This concept is used as a justification for laissez-faire economics, and the view that the market mechanism finds a harmonious equilibrium. . .

There is, of course, a politics as well as a psychology to this economic theory. If nothing much can be done, if things are as good as they can be, it is irresponsible even to suggest to the general public that we try to do something about our economic ills. The role of economists and other policy elites (Paul Krugman is fond of the term “wonks”) is to explain to the general public why they should be reconciled with stagnant incomes, and to rebuke those, like myself, who say otherwise before we raise false hopes that can only be disappointed.

Fortunately, back in graduate school and continuing after we received our degrees, we were encouraged to look beyond liberal economics—both outside the discipline of economics (in philosophy, history, anthropology, and so on) and within the discipline (to strains or traditions of thought that developed criticisms of and alternatives to liberal mainstream economics).

Marx was, of course, central to our theoretical explorations. But so were other thinkers, such as Axel Leijonhufvud (whose work I’ve discussed before). He—along with others, such as Robert Clower and Hyman Minsky—challenged the orthodox interpretation of Keynes, especially the commitment to equilibrium. Leijonhufvud was particularly interested in what happens within a commodity-producing economy when exchanges take place outside of equilibrium.

The orthodox Keynesianism of the time did have a theoretical explanation for recessions and depressions. Proponents saw the economy as a self-regulating machine in which individual decisions typically lead to a situation of full employment and healthy growth. The primary reason for periods of recession and depression was because wages did not fall quickly enough. If wages could fall rapidly and extensively enough, then the economy would absorb the unemployed. Orthodox Keynesians also took Keynes’ approach to monetary economics to be similar to the classical economists.

Leijonhufvud got something entirely different from reading the General Theory. The more he looked at his footnotes, originally written in puzzlement at the disparity between what he took to be the Keynesian message and the orthodox Keynesianism of his time, the confident he felt. The implications were amazing. Had the whole discipline catastrophically misunderstood Keynes’ deeply revolutionary ideas? Was the dominant economics paradigm deeply flawed and a fatally wrong turn in macroeconomic thinking? And if this was the case, what was Keynes actually proposing?

Leijonhufvud’s “Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes” exploded onto the academic stage the following year; no mean feat for an economics book that did not contain a single equation. The book took no prisoners and aimed squarely at the prevailing metaphor about the self-regulating economy and the economics of the orthodoxy. He forcefully argued that the free movement of wages and prices can sometimes be destabilizing and could move the economy away from full employment.

That helped understand the Great Depression. At that period, wages [were] highly flexible and all that seemed to occur as they fell was further devastating unemployment. Being true to Keynes’ own insights, he argued, would require an overhaul of macroeconomic theory to place the problems of coordination and information front and center. Rather than simply assuming that price and wage adjustments would cause the economy to restore an appropriate level of output and employment, he suggested a careful analysis of the actual adjustment process in different economies and how the economy might evolve given these processes. As such, he was proposing a biological or cybernetic approach to economics that saw the economy more as an organism groping forward through time, without a clear destination, rather than a machine that only occasionally needed greasing.

That “path not taken” might also have helped us understand the Second Great Depression and the uneven—and spectacularly unequalizing—recovery that liberal mainstream economists have supervised and celebrated in recent years.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue to look elsewhere, beyond the liberal political economy of despair, for economic and political ideas that create the possibility of a better future.


market concentration

Mainstream economists (such as Larry Summers and Paul Krugman) are clutching at straws to try to explain capitalism’s poor performance, especially the specter of low investment and slow growth—otherwise known as “secular stagnation.” The latest straw is monopoly power.

Even the Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) is focusing attention on the monopoly straw—although, like others within mainstream economics, they’re not at all clear why it’s happening.

there is evidence of 1) increasing concentration across a number of industries, 2) increasing rents, in the form of higher returns on invested capital, across a number of firms, and 3) decreasing business and labor dynamism. However, the links among these factors are not clear. On the one hand, it could be that a decrease in firm entry is leading to higher levels of concentration, which leads to higher rents. On the other hand, it could be that higher levels of concentration are providing advantages to incumbents which are then used to raise entry barriers, leading to lower entry. Or it might be that some other factor is driving these trends. For example, innovation by a handful of firms in winner-take-all markets could give them a dominant market position in a very profitable market that could be difficult to challenge, discouraging entry. Even though it is not clear whether or how these three factors are linked, these trends are nevertheless troubling because they suggest that competition may be decreasing and could require attention by policymakers and regulators.

While some on the liberal wing of mainstream economics have recently discovered increased concentration within the U.S. economy, they fail to credit the longstanding tradition outside of mainstream economics (e.g., within the Marxian critique of political economy) of analyzing the concentration and centralization of capital and the rise of “monopoly capital.”

Liberal mainstream economists simply have no theory of the contradictory dynamics of capitalism (one that can explain, for example, its recurring boom-and-bust cycles), much less a theory of the firm (other than hanging on to the fantasy of the social benefits of competition). That’s why they don’t have a theory of the causes and consequences of the rise of monopoly capital—nor, for that matter, do they indicate any knowledge of the criticisms of and alternatives to the theory of monopoly capital.

I’m thinking in particular of the work of Bruce Norton who, in a variety of articles, has identified some of the key problems in the theory of monopoly capitalism, especially the presumption that “capitalists always strive to increase their accumulation to the maximum extent possible.”* Norton draws particular attention to the wide variety of distributions of the surplus-value corporate boards of directors appropriate from their workers—not just in the form of dividends, but also “profit taxes, salaries of corporate supervisory managers, lawyers, financial and personnel officers, etc., [which are] equally central to the basic workings of the US economy and particularly aggregate demand.”

Each supports processes shaping in particular ways the social formation, the accumulation process, and the continued appropriation of surplus value, and each is a class process, a distribution of surplus labour. We need accumulation theory which takes pains (1) to identify all these various flows of surplus in a particular social formation and (2) to theorise their variegated inter relationships with other aspects of social life (including the continued extraction of surplus value).

That’s precisely what is missing from mainstream economics, including its liberal wing: a theory of the contradictory class dynamics of capitalist firms and of capitalism as a whole.


*See, e.g., his “Epochs and Essences: A Review of Marxist Long-Wave and Stagnation Theories,” published in 1988 in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and “The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism and Classical Economics,” published in 1995 in History of Political Economy.

I haven’t seen “Boom Bust Boom,” the recently released Monty Pythonesque documentary about capitalism’s periodic crises and the failures of mainstream economics.

However, I have read Andrew O’Heir’s [ht: ja] piece in which he argues the film “finds itself a little behind reality.”

It’s a curious development, and an index of how fast public perception and imagination have shifted. To most regular people in most parts of the world, the thesis that unfettered capitalism is unstable, empowers predatory behavior and worsens inequality is not merely uncontroversial but empirically obvious. We appear to be entering an era of political history when socialist or social-democratic reforms are once again in play. . .

it took more than 20 years after the Clinton-Blair rebranding of the electoral left (as, in effect, the squishier, friendlier right) for large swaths of the public to realize how thoroughly they’d been conned. Now Hillary and payday-lender BFF Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the compromised Democratic Party apparatus find themselves in a tough spot. . .

Of course Clinton is now walking back her decades-long support for heartless neoliberal policies of austerity, privatization and free trade. At least in the Democratic campaign, she has slid right past the friendly, center-left Keynesianism of “Boom Bust Boom” to position herself as the decaf Bernie, with more hardheaded practicality but only 20 percent less passion. I understand why she thinks that’s the right strategy; I don’t know whether she expects anyone to believe it.

O’Heir also notes the curious omissions in Terry Jones and Theo Kocken’s whimsical documentary:

I honestly can’t tell you why John Maynard Keynes, the father of interventionist macroeconomics and the intellectual avatar of the entire tradition embodied in “Boom Bust Boom,” is never mentioned by name. Have the right-wing attacks on Keynesianism since the Reagan-Thatcher years really rendered him untouchable? I do understand, more or less, why Karl Marx is not mentioned — although it’s time to get over that, for God’s sake.


There’s no doubt, after the crash of 2007-08, students—including those in middle schools—could use more economics education.

Unfortunately, they’re not getting it. They’re just being exposed to propaganda.

“What is the basic economic problem all societies face?” April Higgins asks her sixth-grade class.

Ava Watson, raises her hand: “Scarcity.”

The teacher asks for a definition and the class responds, in unison: “People have unlimited wants but limited resources.”

Not bad for a bunch of sixth-graders.

What April Higgins is engaged in is not economics education. It’s just neoclassical economics.

You see, there is no single “economic problem.” It all depends on which theory we’re looking at. According to neoclassical economists, all societies in all places and times have faced the same problem: scarcity. And, of course, private property and markets are their proposed solution.

But that’s not the economic problem as defined by Keynesians (how to analyze and use the visible hand of government to get out of less-than-full-employment equilibria) or Marxists (how is the surplus produced, appropriated, and distributed and how can exploitation be eliminated) or many other schools of thought.

The fact is, middle-school economics education (like high-school, undergraduate, and graduate economics education) is dominated by one school of thought, one approach among many, that is presented as “economics.” In the singular.

And that’s because it’s run by the Council for Economic Education and stipulated, in some instances, by government decree:

The Texas education code states that economics must be taught with an emphasis on the free market system and its benefits.

Economics education, at any level, means exposing students to and having them grapple with the assumptions and consequences of different economic theories and systems. Focusing only on one approach and system—neoclassical economic theory and capitalism—is just propaganda.


John Lennon (on the B side of “Imagine”) thought that life was hard, “really hard.” I can understand that.

But is modeling inequality really all that hard?

Paul Krugman seems to think so, at least when it comes to the size or personal distribution of income. That’s his excuse for why mainstream economists were late to the inequality party: they just didn’t know how to model it.

And, according to Krugman, not even Marx can be of much help.

Well, let’s see. It’s true, Marx focused on the factor distribution of income—wages, profits, and rent, to laborers, capitalists, and landowners—because his critique was directed at classical political economy. And the classical political economists—especially Smith and Ricardo—did, in fact, focus their attention on factor shares.

That was Marx’s goal in the chapter on the Trinity Formula: to show that what the classicals thought were separate sources of income to the three factors of production all stemmed from value created by labor. Thus, for example, laborers received in the form of wages part of the value they created (“that portion of his labour appears which we call necessary labour”); the rest, the surplus-value, was divided among capitalists (“as dividends proportionate to the share of the social capital each holds”) and landed property (which “is confined to transferring a portion of the produced surplus-value from the pockets of capital to its own”).

It is really just a short step to show that, in recent decades (from the mid-1970s onward), both that more surplus-value has been pumped out of the direct producers and that investment bankers, CEOs, and other members of the 1 percent have been able to capture a large share of that mass of surplus-value. That’s how we can connect changing factor (wage and profit) shares to the increasingly unequal individual distribution of income (including the rising percentage of income going to the top 1, .01, and .001 percents).

See, that wasn’t so hard. . .


The editor, Casey Harison, has informed us that A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia has just been published.

A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia brings together a selection of papers presented at the conference on “Capitalism and Socialism: Utopia, Globalization and Revolution” at New Harmony, Indiana, in 2014. New Harmony is best known as the site of industrialist Robert Owen’s experiment in communal living in 1825, and it was Owen’s legacy that drew scholars from across the Atlantic. Owen’s work and his experiment at New Harmony again have currency as the world looks back on the 2008 economic crisis and as “socialism,” seemingly banished with the failure of experiments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the end of the last century has returned to the political and economic lexicon. As David Harvey, Thomas Piketty and Joyce Appleby have lately reminded us, capitalism, particularly the forms it has assumed since 1945, is probably exceptional, perhaps ephemeral, but also dynamic and resilient. If the Great Recession has derailed personal lives, destabilized economies and unnerved politicians, it has also reminded us that we have not reached the “end of history.” Where there was once a Social Question, there is now a New Social Question. This edited, multi-disciplinary volume will appeal to readers in political science, economics, history, sociology, anthropology, literature, communications and cultural studies, and to academic audiences in North America, Britain and elsewhere.

My own contribution, “Utopia and the Marxian Critique of Political Economy,” a revised version of the plenary talk I gave at the conference, is the concluding chapter.

For the record, the relationship between utopia and critique is also the topic of the book I’ll be working on next year.


What are U.S. corporations doing with all the surplus they’re managing to rake in? Well, they’re not investing it. Instead, they’re paying it out to shareholders and upper-management, buying back their stock and expanding their portfolios of financial assets, and hoarding the rest in cash. The net effect is to dampen the rate of economic growth and the creation of new jobs.

And that’s worrying mainstream economists and others who celebrate capitalists, since they appear to be failing in their “historical mission” to accumulate capital.

According to a recent paper by Joseph W. Gruber and Steven B. Kamin (pdf), of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, in the years since the Great Financial Crash, investment spending by non-financial corporations (the red line in the chart above) has been much lower than their “savings” (undistributed profits, the blue line), which has placed them in the position of being net lenders (the black bars at the bottom of the chart).

Their conclusion?

we find that the counterpart of declines in resources devoted to investment has been rises in payouts to investors in the form of dividends and equity buybacks (often to a greater extent than predicted by models estimated through earlier periods), and, to a lesser extent, heightened net accumulation of financial assets. The strength of investor payouts suggests that increased risk aversion and a precautionary demand for financial buffers has not been the primary reason firms have cut back investment. Rather, our results are consistent with views that, for any number of reasons, there has been a decline in what firms perceive to be the availability of profitable investment opportunities.

In other words, corporations have been distributing their profits for many uses other than real investment, a process that started before the crash and has quickened in the years since.

As it turns out, I’ve been teaching about Marx’s theory of the accumulation of capital this week, using the following equation:

ΔK = Δc + Δv = βDI = s – [(1-β)DI + DO + DM + DR]

The idea is that the accumulation of capital (ΔK = Δc + Δv) represents a distribution of the surplus to internal managers (βDI), which is equal to the difference between the total surplus (s) and all other distributions of the surplus—to internal managers other than for the purpose of accumulation ([1-β]DI), to owners (DO), to merchants (DM), and all others (DR ). Obviously, if the distributions of the surplus in the form of CEOs salaries, dividends, merchants, and all others (e.g., taxes to the state, rent to landowners, interest payments, and so on), plus cash holdings, increase, then less accumulation of capital—that is, investment—will take take place.

And that’s exactly what’s been going in recent years—thus undermining the legitimacy of both capitalists and of capitalism.

As Marx wrote (in chapter 24 of volume 1 of Capital), in one of the most quoted and yet misinterpreted passages:

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! “Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.” Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital. Political Economy takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.

Bitter earnest, indeed—on the part of classical economists then and mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economists today.

Thanks to Bruce Norton, we know that that passage is not Marx’s assertion that capitalists are driven to accumulate capital. Instead, it’s what mainstream economists (then as now) claim is the role capitalists can and should play. It’s one side, if you will, of our pact with the devil: the capitalists are the ones who get and decide on the distribution of the surplus, and then they’re supposed to use the surplus for investment, thereby creating economic growth and jobs.

When they fail to to fulfill that historical mission, and use the surplus to line their own pockets and to share it with their friends, they break the pact and lose their legitimacy in having sole control over the surplus.

Mainstream economists want to do everything possible to encourage the capitalists to accumulate capital. The rest of us recognize that the time has come to replace the capitalists and use the surplus to benefit the mass of people who, until now, created but have had no say in deciding what should be done with the surplus.