Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

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The debate about our ecological predicament is heating up and, as it turns out, the Marxian critique of political economy is at the center of that debate.

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Much of the discussion right now concerns the Anthropocene, the idea that the current geological age—overlapping with or, increasingly, after the Holocene—is a period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

However, as Benjamin Kunkel [ht: ja] explains, “two of the most formidable contributions so far to the literature of the Anthropocene come from authors who reject the term.”

Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital have overlapping criticisms of what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. An Anthropocene that begins ten thousand years ago sheds no light on the ecological dynamic of recent centuries; modern Anthropocenes – usually conceived as more or less coeval with mercantile, industrial or postwar capitalism – either ignore the specific origins of the period or, at best, acknowledge but fail to analyse them. A concept attractive in the first place for its periodising potential thereby forfeits meaningful historical content. Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’

Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. Anthropological invariables like ‘tool use, language, co-operative labour’ and so on may furnish preconditions for accelerating climate change, but do nothing to establish it as a predestined episode in the history of the species: ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species … exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For both Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.

Kunkel doesn’t consider the terminological dispute—Anthropocene or Capitalocene?—to be particularly important. I do.

As I wrote back in 2011,

Human beings have, of course, transformed the planet from the start of agriculture and the beginnings of class society. But it is as a result of the rise of capitalism that the most significant changes—from rising carbon dioxide levels, population growth, and consumption—have been produced.

The real question for the International Commission on Stratigraphy is, should the geologic timescale be changed to include the Age of Capitalism?

I therefore suggested we might begin using Capitalocene as an alternative to Anthropocene.*

A concept only matters in terms of its effects. As I see it, Capitalocene has a number of advantages. First, it recognizes a longstanding literature (which, unfortunately, Naomi Klein, among many others, fails to recognize and credit) on the relationship between capitalism and the remaking of the natural environment—the long tradition of attempts, sometimes referred to as green-red alliances, to develop a relevant intellectual and political program. I am thinking of the line of eco-socialists, from William Morris in the late-nineteenth century and the members of the Proletkul’t movement during the Soviet Revolution to Rudolf Bahro (the East German dissident), James O’Connor (who founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism), Joel Kovel (who cowrote with Michael Lowy An Ecosocialist Manifesto and the next year his famous book, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), Vandana Shiva (who writes about and fights for changes in the practices and paradigms of agriculture and food, in India, Bhutan, and elsewhere), and many, many others.

Second, Capitalocene points to the ways capitalism—the particular tendencies and dynamics associated with the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value, the accumulation of capital, and much else—has both made the despoiling of the natural environment (e.g., through the use of fossil fuels) central to the production and distribution of commodities and shifted its effects onto poor people and minorities, who bear higher levels of water, air, and other kinds of pollution than anyone else.

Finally, the term Capitalocene carries with it the possibility of imagining the end of capitalism, and therefore a radical change in the way human beings relate to the natural environment. To be clear, I am not suggesting that global warming and other environmental problems would be automatically eliminated with a radical transformation of the way the economy is currently organized. That’s partly because, as Kunkel explains, “the outsized role of human societies in determining the complexion of earthly existence will persist long after the capitalist mode of production—on even its partisans’ most optimistic assumptions—has expired.” It’s also because there’s nothing necessarily “green” about other modes of production (including, as we know, the state capitalism of the Soviet Union). Environmental concerns will require particular changes in thinking to be made central to whatever noncapitalist economies are imagined and enacted as we move forward.

I do, however, maintain that eliminating capitalism will be an important step in setting aside and overcoming many of the obstacles to creating a different, better relationship in and with the natural environment.

Therefore, I agree with Kunkel that “the question of modern humanity’s past and future ecological trajectory can’t be intelligently posed except as a question about capitalism.”

*In fact, Moore (p. 5) credits me as being the first to publicize the concept:

The first thing I wish to say is that Capitalocene is an ugly word for an ugly system. As Haraway points out, “the Capitalocene” seems to be one of those words floating in the ether, one crystallized by several scholars at once—many of them independently. I first heard the word in 2009 from Andreas Malm. The radical economist David Ruccio seems to have first publicized the concept, on his blog in 2011 (Ruccio 2011). By 2012, Haraway began to use the concept in her public lectures (Haraway 2015). That same year, Tony Weis and I were discussing the concept in relation to what would become The Ecological Hoofprint, his groundbreaking work on the meat-industrial complex (2013). My formulation of the Capitalocene took shape in the early months of 2013, as my discontent with the Anthropocene argument began to grow.

fig1

It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.

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And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.

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I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.

The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.

So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.

But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).

My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*

The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.

That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.

 

*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).

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The Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney has posted the text of the talk I delivered at Gleebooks, 19 October 2016, as part of a “Class Acts in Political Economy” roundtable with Katherine Gibson and Adam David Morton.

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Scenes from my talk last night, “Utopia and the Critique of Political Economy,” sponsored by the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney in a lecture series to honor Ted Wheelwright (1921-2007).

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 16 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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conspiciousconsumption

We know the rich are getting richer in the United States. And, as it turns out, people are well aware of how rich people are flaunting their growing wealth.

One Reddit [ht: sm] thread last week (which, last time I looked, had over 19 thousand comments) started with the question, “What’s the most obscene display of private wealth you’ve ever witnessed?”

Here are some of my favorites:

I used to be a nanny to celebrities and high profile New York financial families. . .The CEO and his model wife of a famous athletic wear company paid for an entire wardrobe for me to keep at their home because they didn’t want “outside clothes” contaminating their house or infant. I was to take my street clothes into the bathroom near the entrance, take them off, change into my “house” clothing, and then only change back after I was finished with the baby for the day and was getting ready to leave. They also had a safe of cash that I was to use exclusively for my meals, drinks and take out food, and then leave the receipts in the safe.


I work for a luxury home builder. Very big, very expensive houses. We are building a home for this guy & he calls freaking out at me because AT&T would only provide him with 9 DVRs when he needs 11. They would provide him with more, but he would need to open a second account to do so. I don’t know why, I guess they had some kind of weird limit at the time. I’m the CTO of the homebuilder, so he expected me to get AT&T to change this policy so he could have a TV with DVR in every bathroom as well as the normal TV-viewing rooms. I obviously couldn’t do this, so he cancelled his contract with us thru his lawyer & never spoke to us again. His deposit was non-refundable, in fact we had already spent most of the money on the initial part of the build. So he walked away from over $100,000 we wouldn’t give him back without ever saying a word to us. It was no biggie to him I guess. It also made NO SENSE.


I was driving for Uber in a college town and picked up a group from one of the richer frat houses to take them to a club. The girls were discussing how one of their friends was upset and went on a huge shoe shopping spree where each pair cost roughly $2,000 except for one. This one pair costed $7,000. One of the girls casually expresses that “$7,000 is really not a bad price to pay for shoes, they should’ve just been a little bit prettier. I would’ve paid $5,000 for them.” Why they called an Uber instead of a limo, I don’t know.


My boss owns a 15+ million dollar cottage. He likes to “entertain” and throws some pretty wild parties. His wealthy neighbours down the lake complained about the noise and frequently called police. One day they saw him on the street and told him smugly that they had a generous offer on their cottage and they were moving. I know, said my boss, I bought it.


A party at the CEO’s house for Halloween. Insanity. I thought I was going to get kicked out of the neighborhood because I was only driving a 30k car, not a 300k car. Anything you can think of, he had at this party – staff with signature cocktails at the door, a fully staffed bar for liquor, a fully staffed bar for wine, an entire table made of ice with ice shot glasses and ten different vodkas. He was wearing a costume made of leather that his wife commissioned for him, handmade in France. The 400 yard bridge to his private lake was strung up with extra lights, and the dock had a separate bar for those who wanted to sit on the lake.


My mother owned a small home-based business doing a whole bunch of different shit, including silk floral arrangements and other artificial plants. Occasionally, she would be hired to do the floral component of some big interior decorating job.

One time, she was hired by a local home builder to do just such an interior decorating gig at his mansion.

He did have a private helicopter pad in his backyard, but someone elsewhere in this thread has already mentioned another one of those.

The conservatory flooring was walnut parquet tile. It was lovely, except that the mogul’s wife had recently had a party where, of course, many of her guests were wearing stiletto heels. These heels made a kajillion tiny divots in the walnut parquet tile, ruining it. Mrs. Homebuilder was unconcerned; she was simply going to replace it.

I think, though, what stands out to me the most was the foyer, mainly its Corinthian columns gilded in 24 karat gold. Who the fuck does that?


Building a house for some rather wealthy people. While they “rough it” in their $1.5M barn waiting for us to finish. The horses they own have their individual quarters being completely cleaned around the clock. There is fresh new hay brought in by the truckload which is then sorted through in front of a fan where the dirt is blown out leaving only clean hay. The floors in each stall are constantly being covered with a bed of imported wood chips/shavings from somewhere in Northern California (we’re in central TX). The chips and hay are brought in by the truckload every week. Each horse is fed a Snickers Bar before bed. They live in a climate controlled area of the “barn” where they are fed filtered water. Hot water during the winter and ice water in the summer. None of these horses are pure-bred or rare/special other than the fact that they were chosen. One day while working we saw one of the barn workers hauling ass through the field so naturally we waited and watched to see what he was doing. He was running to our portopotty. We didn’t think much of it at first. Then we got a phonecall. “Have you guys seen one of the mexicans over there? He asked to use the bathroom and has been gone gone for 7 minites when he’s only allotted a five minute break.” She then proceeded to ask if we’d find him and send him back before he goes pilfering through the construction supplies and tools. These people made a ~45 yr old grown ass man, with kids and shit, haul ass across a field, about 300 yards, in the dead of summer in TX to take a shit…while they timed him. This lady once asked some hispanic concrete workers to move from under the shade of her giant oak tree because they may kill the root system with their boots. When we told her they were just eating luch and that it was hot her reasoning was that “mexicans don’t feel heat anyways”. Money makes people weird. I could go on for hours.

Well, you get the idea. There are plenty of other stories—about neighbors, roommates, and so on. The ones I’ve chosen (and there are many more) are all from or about people who have worked for the tiny group at the top.