Its Cause: The Law of Value
For capitalists, all is well when they make a sufficient profit. When the growth of the capitalist economy is impeded, the reason is always a lack of profit. But before we examine what undermines the profit-rate, we must recall where profit comes from. The easy answer is: from a successful sale. But that begs the question: how are commodities exchanged? How is the value of something determined when it is bought or sold? By the laws of supply and demand, the bourgeois economists answer. And indeed, it's easy to see that, when the demand for a commodity exceeds its supply, its price rises; and that it falls when the supply exceeds the demand. But the market always tends to bring supply and demand into balance. The rising price of a commodity that is short in supply will attract capital for its production, which conversely will move away from the production of commodities whose prices are falling because of oversupply. Besides, the price-oscillations caused by temporary imbalances in supply and demand tend to cancel each other out: when purchasing power remains unchanged, the increased demand and rising price of one commodity causes the declining demand and price of others. When demand and supply are in balance, they cease to explain anything.
Yet the fact that commodities can be exchanged means that they can be compared in value to each other. They can be compared because they have something in common. One thing they have in common is use-value: they must be desirable. But use-value is quite distinct from exchange-value. Air, for instance, has use-value but no exchange-value, although with the increase of air pollution, it may one day become an object of trade too (1). When people produced things for themselves without trading, their products had a use-value but no exchange-value. In communism, when the satisfaction of human needs is the sole purpose of production, there will be use-value but no exchange-value. But from the time when communities produced enough to start trading with each other, and until humans can produce enough for all and have adapted their society to this new reality, exchange-value (value for short) has and will rule the market. But trade can't be based on use-value alone: how do you compare the use-value of a bread and a knife? When you discount the wins and losses resulting from salesmanship and fluctuations in supply and demand, there can be only one basis for trade: the fact that, besides having a use-value, commodities have his in common: they all are products of labour. They all contain a certain amount of labour-power necessary to produce them. That's what determines their exchange-value and makes it possible to compare and trade them. If, on a given market, commodity A is the result of 10 hours of labour and commodity B is the result of 1 hour of labour, commodity A will be worth 10 commodities B. Provided, of course, that these commodities contain the amount of labour time that is the average needed for their production for that particular market. If a producer needs more time than the social average to make a commodity, he will be unable to recover in its sale part of the value he has put into it. Conversely, if a producer needs less time than the social average to make a particular commodity, he can sell it for more than the value he put into it, and pocket an extra profit.
Each commodity, of course, contains not only the value of the labour-power of the last producer who worked on it, but also the value of the labour of all producers who contributed to its different stages. The exchange-value of each bread, for instance, does not only contain the value of the labour that the baker devoted to it, but also the value of labour contributed by the miller, the farmer, the carpenter who built the mill, the mason who built the oven, the trucker who transported the ingredients, etc. For the last producer, the baker, all the past labour of the other contributing producers appear only as costs to himself which he has to transfer to his customers.
If the world consisted only of direct producers like the baker and the miller and the farmer, it would never have known the stupendous productivity which capitalism made possible. The big difference between capitalism and all previous economic systems is the existence of a very particular commodity: labour-power, that can be freely bought and sold. The market value of this commodity is determined in the same way as of any other: by the socially average labour time necessary to produce it. To keep a worker productive, he must receive food, clothing, a dwelling, medical care and certain other necessities that may vary according to cultural conditions and the stage of development of society. The socially average labour time needed to produce these necessities determine the value of his labour-power and hence his wage. But the capitalist does not hire him for the sake of creating employment. He only does so because the value of the labour-power which he buys from the worker, is higher than the value of what he returns to the worker in the form of wages. The difference is the surplus-value, the sole source of the capitalist's profit.
Doesn't his machinery create profit too? No. It certainly adds value to the product, but only the value of the past labour that it already contains. The value of the machinery doesn't increase during the production process, it is simply transferred to the product. Equipment which has a lifespan of ten years will have lost half its value in five years but the other half will be transferred into the commodities produced in the meantime. That's why the machinery, infrastructure and raw materials used in production are called ‘constant capital’. The labour-power bought with wages is called ‘variable capital’, because it is this capital which increases the value of the output over the value of the total capital advanced for its production. If there were such a thing as a fully automated plant, requiring no human labour whatsoever in the entire production process, then the value of the production of this plant would be exactly equal to the value of the plant itself and of the raw materials consumed in production. There is no reason why the output of this plant would be worth anything more, since no labour is added, no additional costs would be incurred during production. Hence, there would also be no surplus-value, no profit. (Actually, the profit of the owner of such a plant would be huge - but only because of his cost advantage over his competitors. The source of his profit would be surplus-value extracted by them and it would disappear if they all possessed such a wonderful plant too - but we'll get to that in a minute).
When he sells his products, the capitalist recovers the value of the capital he invested to make them (and pockets the surplus-value). In theory, he can spend his profit any way he wants. But competition - and human ingenuity - won't let him. He has no choice but to constantly reinvest the bulk of his profits into the expansion of his productive apparatus. The reason is that, through the development of technology, new production methods constantly appear which make it possible to produce the same commodities cheaper, that is to say, using less labour.
The capitalist who introduces such a new production method, reaps a windfall profit - that's what motivates the constant search for new, more efficient technology. The cost of his constant capital increases, but that is more than offset by the increase of labour productivity made possible by his new production method. Since the market value of a commodity is determined by the socially average labour-power needed to produce it, and his new production method requires less labour-power, he can sell his products above the value they contain and pocket a surplus profit. Or, if he so chooses, he can sell them at their lower value to eliminate his competitors from the market. They then have no choice but to follow suit and incorporate in their turn the new production methods if they want to survive. And so it goes on and on. The productivity growth unleashed by this process, continuously cheapens all commodities, because they contain progressively less labour (inflation and added costs such as taxes, which we shall analyze later on, may mask this trend but do not alter it). But because labour-power (or at least the unpaid portion of it) is the source of profit, the rate of profit has the inevitable tendency to fall. The very thing which for the individual capitalist appears as the nearest source of an increase of his profits - the introduction of new, labour-saving technology - becomes for capitalist production as a whole, exactly the opposite.
Let's try to picture this more concretely. Imagine a factory where boats are made. The owner of the plant has invented $70 millions in machinery and infrastructure (called ‘fixed capital’) which needs to be replaced after a production cycle of say, 10 years. In this period his plant can process $30 millions worth of raw materials. His total investment in constant capital over the production cycle is thus $100 millions. In this period, he employs 10 million hours of labour time and he pays his workers 10 dollars an hour. His investment in variable capital is thus $100 millions, which brings his total investment for the production cycle to $200 millions. This results in the production of 1000 boats. His cost per boat is therefore $200 millions divided by 1000, or 200,000 dollars. The value of each boat is of course higher, because it also contains surplus-value, labour that was not paid for, the source of all profit. We'll come to that in a minute.
First, let's examine how the illusion that the source of profit is something else - i.e. technological change - comes into being and forces capitalism to attack its real source of profit. In his next production cycle, our boat-builder has the opportunity to invest in new, more efficient machinery which costs him $100 millions. He can now process twice as much raw materials in the same period, so its value doubles. His investment in constant capital has therefore increased to $160 millions. The increased scale of his production requires more labour, but the increase of variable capital must obviously be smaller than the increase of constant capital, otherwise his new equipment wouldn't save him any labour and wouldn't bring an increase in productivity, which is the reason why he makes the investment in the first place. So let's say his wage-costs increase to $110 millions. The new production cycle results in the manufacture of 2000 boats. Apparently, the capitalist has made a wise investment: his total production costs have only risen by 35% (to $270 millions) but his output has increased by 100%. His costs per boat have therefore gone down from $200,000 to $135,000.
If our boat-builder is the first of all the boat companies who compete on our given market, to use the new equipment, he has struck gold. Since his cost per boat is 65,000 dollars lower than that of his competitors, he reaps a surplus profit of the same amount. Or, if his expanded production has saturated the market, he can lower his surplus profit and sell considerably cheaper than his competitors to drive them out of the market.
But this advantage disappears to the degree that other boat-builders are making the same investment. It is totally gone when all boat companies have introduced the same improved equipment. Instead of reaping a windfall profit, his normal profit-rate now falls. Because he is now producing with relatively less labour, he also obtains less unpaid labour, hence he obtains less profit per unit of capital advanced. Every new production method creates such a cycle: first a phase in which it creates enormous profits for a happy few, then a phase in which these profits gradually decline but go to more capitalists, finally reaching the point where the profit-rate is lower than before for everybody. In the meantime, of course, other technological changes have engendered the same patterns which overlap the first, but which all move in the same historical direction, exacerbating this fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.
Let's see now what happens to our boat-builder's normal profits, assuming that his production methods are no better or no worse than average or, in other words, that the organic composition of his capital (the ratio of constant to variable capital he employs) is the average of the entire boat-industry in both cycles of production, so that, on the market, he neither has a competitive advantage nor disadvantage. In the first cycle, he has paid $100 millions for his constant capital to other capitalists. He has paid its value in toto: he has reimbursed the production costs of the producers of machinery and raw materials and has paid their profits too. The value of his constant capital did not increase during the production cycle: it was simply transferred over the course of the 10 years to the finished products, the 1000 boats.
The same is not true for variable capital, the labour-power. Here, the costs of the capitalist do not equal the value that is transferred over the course of the production cycle. He pays only a part of that and that part corresponds to the value of the necessities which the workers need to remain productive workers. The rest is unpaid, the surplus-value, source of his profit. Let's assume that in the first production cycle, the unpaid part of the value of the labour added during production, equals the paid part, the wages. That would mean that the workers have produced $100 millions of surplus-value in the first cycle; and, since we assumed that the organic composition of the plant is average, this will also be the amount of his profit. So he will make $100,000 profit on each boat.
Because of continuous development of productivity-raising technology, in each new production cycle, each worker sets in motion a progressively higher quantity of machinery and raw materials. So therefore, our boat-builder's constant capital grows much faster than his variable capital. Let's assume that in the second cycle, his additional investment in constant capital is 5 times higher than in additional workers; 10 times higher in the third cycle and so on. It doesn't take long before he runs into trouble. After investing in the second cycle ($150 millions in constant capital and $110 millions in wages), he still keeps a net profit of $40 millions, from his first cycle-revenue of $300 millions. But he barely breaks even after investing in the third cycle ($250 millions in constant capital and $120 millions in wages, with a second cycle-revenue of 150 c + 110v +110s or $370 millions). For the fourth cycle, he needs $400 millions to invest in constant capital and $130 millions for wages, but his revenue of the third cycle is only $490 millions ( 250 c + 120 v + 120s). He therefore faces a shortfall of $40 millions.
It goes without saying that the figures in this example are imaginary (the capitalist wouldn't have run into trouble so soon if his organic composition hadn't risen so fast or if we had taken into account the factors that counteract the falling rate of profit, which we'll discuss later). But the tendencies they express are not. They illustrate that:
Capitalism isn't paralyzed when this occurs. Because of their competitive advantage, the stronger capitals still obtain the necessary surplus-value to continue their accumulation, but the weaker ones increasingly don't. The result is increasingly unequal development, a growing rift between the most developed capitals, and the others which are gradually driven from the market by the former, against whom they cannot compete. But the elimination of the weaker capitals, those which operate with a lower organic composition and which therefore infuse relatively more value into the world economy, inevitably exacerbates the falling rate of profit.
The fall of the rate of profit is of course a tendency, which dynamically interacts with capitalism's other contradictions, and which is slowed and at times even arrested by counteracting influences, which we will discuss further. But these counter-influences cannot alter the historic progression of the trend. The fall of the rate of profit is inevitable, because its cause and its apparent cure are identical. The more this cure (the hunt for surplus profits through rising productivity) is applied, the deadlier the disease becomes.
The fall of the rate of profit and the rise of the mass of profit
Precisely because of this paradox, the cause of the fall of the profit-rate is impossible to grasp for a capitalist. On the surface, as Marx noted, "it appears as if the capitalist adds less profit to the price of the individual commodity (...) and makes up for it through the greater number of commodities he produces."(3) Not only capitalists suffer from this illusion. Many Marxists have fallen prey to a vulgar distortion of Marx’s theory which confuses the same appearances with the underlying reality. Thus, they declare that capitalism compensates "for the fall in the rate of profit (..) by a rise in the mass of profit, i.e. by producing and selling more commodities." (4) Or: "The decrease in value of the individual commodity is counterbalanced by the increase in the quantity of commodities, so that profitability of capital is maintained, despite falling prices." (5) And so on. The quotations are easy to find because the mistake is so common. The fact that those quoted above, while strongly disagreeing on other aspects of crisis theory, all accept the idea that the fall of the rate of profit is compensated or at least tempered by a rise of the mass of profit, caused by greater productivity, i.e. by the greater output of use-values, is quite remarkable. The more so because Marx himself explicitly criticized and even ridiculed this idea. (6).
Marx of course recognized that the mass of profit grows together with capitalism, but for him, this does not result from the growing volume of use-values, the unceasing capacity for "producing and selling more commodities". Yet this seems true. It's plain to see that, when a capitalist can increase his production faster than his production costs, his profit usually increases. It therefore seems as if his capacity to produce more is the cause of his good fortune. But in reality, the increase of his profit results from the competitive advantage he obtains by raising 'his' productivity over the average. For total capital, competition does not exist; the total profit is not influenced by competitive advantages, which affect only the way the total profit is divided among capitals. Therefore, for the amount of profit available to capitalism, it really doesn't matter in itself how large or small the volume of production is. This seems paradoxical, even absurd and that's why this is hard to understand. But the paradox, the absurdity, is in the capitalist system itself, which sinks deeper into crisis and turmoil to the degree it is more successful in increasing productivity and creating more wealth. This shows most clearly that its historic mission is completed and that it must be cast aside.
Let's return for a moment to our boat-builder, who can serve as a stand-in for capitalism as a whole, since we assumed that the organic composition of his capital, and therefore its productivity is average, so that his profit-rate, like the profit-rate of capitalism as a whole, is not changed by competition. In our example (first cycle), he produced 1000 boats with $100 million of constant capital and $100 million of variable capital. We assumed that half of the labour time was unpaid, or surplus-value. Because of his average organic composition, that equaled his profit. His profit per boat was 100 000 dollars. Let's now assume that this average organic composition does not result in the production of 1000 boats, but of 10 000 boats. His profit per boat now declines to only $ 10 000 but the mass of his profit remains exactly the same: $ 100 000. As long as his organic composition is average, it makes no difference whether the output is 1000, 10 000 or a zillion. "The mass of profit on the individual product decreases proportionately to the increase in the number of products. The mass of profit remains the same, but is distributed differently over the total amount of commodities" (7).
Profit has only one source, the surplus-value. For capitalism as a whole, the total mass of profit is equal to the total quantity of surplus-value and for the capitalist in our example too, because his average organic composition means he has no advantage or disadvantage over his competitors. As Marx noted time and again, "everything appears reversed in competition", so that, what occurs to individual capitalists masks what occurs to capital as a whole: the capitalist who expands his production through an increase of his organic composition makes more profit, the one who is lagging behind makes less. But they are just taking or losing surplus-value from and to each other. Therefore in the sum of all capitalists, the capitalist production as a whole, these competitive advantages and disadvantages cancel each other out and it gets exactly as much profit as there is surplus-value produced. And since surplus-value is the unpaid part of the labour used, its mass obviously is only a part of the whole, the total labour used in production, and this whole continuously declines in relation to the quantity of the whole of constant capital that needs to be replaced and expanded.
Marx spoke of "this double-edged law of a decrease in the rate of profit and a simultaneous increase in the absolute mass of profit, arising from the same causes" (8) because the same technological progress which reduces the use of labour-power in production relatively, also continuously enlarges capitalism's scale of production and thereby increases the absolute amount of labour-power in the production process. And when the total amount of labour-power in production grows, its unpaid portion (the surplus-value and hence the profit) grows too. It's therefore logical that the fall of the rate of profit goes together with a rise of the mass of profit, since they are different aspects of the same process. But rather than compensating or even tempering the fall of the rate of profit, the rise of the mass indicates that the problem has worsened. The mass of profit has increased because the mass of variable capital has increased. But its rate of increase is necessarily lower than the rate at which the constant capital has expanded. This expansion must be fed by profit, whose rate of growth continuously falls in relation to the rate of growth of the constant capital. A shortage of profit at some point is thus inevitable. Suppose this point is reached when the organic composition reaches a value-relation of 10 c (constant capital) to 1 v (variable capital). It makes no difference then, what the scale of production is at that point: a situation of 200 c + 20v, yielding 20 s (surplus-value) is just as bad as a situation of 100 c + 10 v yielding 10 s, although the mass of profit in the first is twice as large. But since it results from a rise of the organic composition, the rise of the mass of profit does not only fail to stop the fall of the rate of profit, it is also symptomatic for the latter's exacerbation.
Back to the boat-builder. We assume again that his organic composition is at all times average, so that his profit is not affected by competition. We must further ignore all other causes of increase of the mass of profit (which we will discuss further) to isolate the impact of expansion of production on the mass of profit. To speed things up, we assume that our producer can, with every new cycle, double his investment. Let's say that in the first cycle, his production costs amount to 250 (150c and 100 v), yielding 100 surplus-value. To double his investment, he must borrow 250-100-=150 (assuming, for simplicity's sake, that he can reinvest all his s). Let's say that the rise of the organic composition resulting from technological progress, requires that he invests now 70% of his capital in c and 30% in v, instead of the 60-40 ratio of the first cycle. He thus produces in his second cycle with 350 c and 150 v, obtaining 150 s. To double his investment in the third cycle, he must borrow 500-150 or 350. Because of the rise of the organic composition, he now invests 80% of his capital in c and 20% in v. He then produces with 800 c and 200 v, obtaining 200 s. To double his investment again, he then must borrow 1000-200, or 800. So, despite the growth of the mass of profit resulting from his expansion, his shortage of surplus-value grows from 150 % of his profit in the first cycle to 220 % in the second and 300 % in the third. In other words: the faster he expands, the deeper the hole he sinks into.
In the above example, the boat-builder can of course no longer serve as a stand-in for total capital, since the latter cannot borrow from an outside source of capital and therefore can't expand that fast. It can and does increase its overall debt-rate, but that affects only the way in which the surplus-value is divided between industrial and financial capital. If industrial capital raises its borrowing to invest more surplus-value than it has extracted, it will have less surplus-value available in the future, since it will have to deduct increased interest-payments from its profit. Unless the increase of debt is made possible by an accelerated printing of money, in which case all that is accomplished is a devaluation of money, the source of the borrowed capital is also surplus-value, realised in the past. Therefore, in the long run, capital can invest only as much surplus-value as it can extract.
Without the ability to borrow, the expansion of our boat-builder becomes necessarily much slower. Assuming the same rate of increase in the organic composition as in the above example, his 150 c + 100 v + 100 s in the first cycle, becomes 245 c + 105 v + 105 s in the second and 364 c + 91 v +91 s in the third. In the second cycle, his mass of profit rises while his rate of profit falls, but in the third, both the rate and the mass fall. This happens so quickly because we raised his organic composition so fast. We could temporarily solve the problem by slowing down the rate of increase of his organic composition, but that would only stretch out the same process over a longer time.
Marx noted that, the higher the organic composition becomes, the larger the investment in constant capital must become to prevent the mass of profit from falling, since "an ever larger quantity of capital is required to employ the same, let alone an increased amount of labour-power (...) If the variable capital forms just 1/6 of the total capital instead of the former 1/2, the total capital must be trebled to employ the same amount of labour-power. And if twice as much labour-power is to be employed, the total capital must increase six-fold" (9) So for the mass of profit to grow through expanding the scale of production, the total capital must not just grow, but it "must grow at a greater rate than the rate of profit falls" or, otherwise said, it must grow faster than the variable capital declines in relation to the total production costs. So, "if the variable portion of a capital equaling 100 should fall from 40 to 20, the total capital must rise higher than 200 to be able to employ a larger variable capital than 40." (10) That means that, in Marx's example, from a variable capital of 40, somehow a surplus-value of 100 must be squeezed, just to keep the mass of profit at the same level! And even more, when the organic composition increases further. How can this be done? The increase in the organic composition means both a deceleration in the growth of the variable capital and thus of surplus-value and profit, and an acceleration in the growth of the surplus-value needed to prevent the variable capital and thus also the surplus-value and profit from declining absolutely. This contradiction shows that, over time, it becomes impossible for capital to maintain an expansion that supports a continued absolute growth of variable capital and therefore of profit.
Yet reality shows otherwise. Outside of periods of crisis (which we will analyse in the last part of this text) the working class, i.e. the variable capital, has continued to grow, even if at a slowing rate. Given the rise of the organic composition, the corresponding much larger expansion of constant capital occurred therefore also, despite the declining profit-rate. How could the mass of profit grow enough to accomplish this? That this expansion was possible, points to the presence of counteracting factors which, unlike the expansion of production as such, increase both the rate and mass of profit.
If we were to continue the calculations of our last example, we would see that the boat-builder's expansion becomes weaker and weaker but also that it never stops. As long as surplus-value is added during production, there is profit and thus some investment fund, although an ever-smaller one. If our boat-builder serves as a stand-in for capital as a whole which, like him, never invests more surplus-value than it has extracted, it would appear that although the fall in the rate of profit condemns capitalism to ever-slower growth it never leads to global crisis, to a breakdown of accumulation. But for that to be true, all individual capitals would have to receive their share of the surplus-value in proportion to their size, so that they all could continue to participate in the accumulation process. In reality, individual capitals must compete ceaselessly for investment capital, which constantly moves about in a restless search for the highest return. That means that the strongest, most competitive capitals get served first from the common surplus-value fund. Since their organic composition is above average, their productivity is too, so that their competitive advantage on the market yields them a surplus profit, which attracts investment capital. But for the same reason (their above-average organic composition), they take more than their proportional share from the surplus-value fund, since their expansion requires ever more capital than the average. Since they take more than their share, there is not enough left over for the rest. Again, competition for capital, based primarily on differences in the rate of profit, determines who gets what, but a shortage of surplus-value is inevitable. The more so because the average organic composition continuously rises too, so that the average investment requires progressively more capital or, in other words, the threshold for capital formation continuously rises. Except when they find a niche in the market that can be served with production at a lower organic composition, capitals that cannot make the rising threshold lose their ability to compete and go bankrupt, become unproductive. The surplus-value they already contain is thus wasted, it cannot yield additional surplus-value, so that the global fund for accumulation is further reduced.
This shows how the fall of the rate of profit leads to a continuous expulsion of weaker capitals, which is so visible in the world economy today, and a continuous shrinkage of the pool of profit for the other, progressively more technology-based, less labour-power-using capitals. This certainly creates the conditions for crisis but it does not explain why crisis can become a global breakdown which not only impedes expansion because of a shortage of surplus-value but paralyzes the whole of capitalist production. Indeed, as long as there is some surplus-value extracted there continues to be a motivation to produce since profit can be made provided that the surplus-value can be realised (that is to say, that the commodities which contain it can be sold). Hypothetically, if a point were reached at which even the strongest capitals couldn't expand because of the lack of surplus-value, then competition would no longer coerce all capitals to accumulate through the threat of being eliminated by those who do. By itself, the fall in the rate of profit would mean stagnation and a gradual contraction but not a global collapse. So, as we shall see further on, the inevitability of capitalism's global breakdown cannot be explained by the fall of the rate of profit alone.
The fall of the rate of profit and the cheapening of the components of the production process
The continuous rise of the organic composition of capital not only tends to make the rate of profit fall, but at the same time it makes all commodities ever cheaper, since their production requires ever less value. But since these commodities are also the components of the production process (the machinery etc. that form the constant capital and the consumer goods that determine the value of the variable capital, the workers’ wages) it would seem that the production costs would also tend to decline. Since the rate of profit expresses the ratio of the surplus-value to the production costs, it appears then that the tendency of this rate to fall is countered, or at least tempered, by the cheapening of the components of the production process. If production increases faster (and thus if the components cheapen faster) than the variable capital declines in relation to the constant, the fall in the rate of profit would appear to be completely neutralised. This objection has been raised by non-Marxists to declare the law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit a mere chimera but Marxists too have seen this cheapening as an important counteracting factor.
Indeed, when less value is needed to produce the necessities workers buy with their wages, the paid portion of the labour day shrinks and the unpaid increases; in other words, the rate of relative surplus-value increases. And when the production of constant capital requires always less value, its expansion seems much less problematic. Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, wrote that "the increasing productivity of labour ensures that the means of production grow faster in bulk than in value, in other words: means of production become cheaper (..) This phenomenon amongst others also checks the actual decline of the rate of profit and modifies it to a mere tendency, though our example shows that the decline of the profit-rate would not only be retarded but rather completely arrested." (11) And Paul Mattick, while believing that the fall of the rate of profit is the sole cause of capitalism's tendency to collapse, nevertheless thought that the "increase in use-values at the same exchange-value" (i.e. the cheapening of commodities) "weakens the tendency to collapse." (12)
Marx himself did not solve the issue (let's not forget that volume 3 of Capital was only a rough draft at the time of his death). While discussing the cheapening of elements of the constant capital as a counteracting influence, he notes that "the same influences which tend to make the rate of profit fall, also moderate the effects of this tendency" (13) but he also turns this around: "the same process which brings about a cheapening of commodities in the course of the development of the capitalist mode of production, causes a change in the organic composition of the social capital invested in the production of commodities, and consequently lowers the rate of profit." (14) He emphasized that the cheapening of the components of production and the increase in the rate of relative surplus-value it implies, like the rise in the mass of profit resulting from the scale-enhancement of production, are caused by the same process that makes the profit-rate fall. On one hand, they lessen this fall, but on the other, the more they accelerate, the more the fall of profit accelerates too.
This seems to make the question only more baffling. Even more so, when we consult our boat-builder (for the last time, I promise). In our first example, we saw how, as a result of a rise in his organic composition, the value of each boat he produced, declined from 300 000 in the first cycle, to 220 000 in the second, or roughly 27 %. We saw how, after some time, he ran into trouble because of the decline of his profit-rate. But we didn't factor in the cheapening of his constant and variable capital. Since the organic composition of our boat-builder is average, we must assume that the value of this C and V have also diminished by about 27 %. When we apply that to our calculations, the decline of his rate of profit completely disappears. And since we said that the boat-builder was a stand-in for total capital because of his average organic composition, it would appear that Luxemburg was right! We also saw why the quantity of the commodities produced has in itself no influence on the total quantity of profit. Yet now, it seems to have a very great influence, since the larger the production per worker becomes, the cheaper the components and thus the lower the production costs become.
But, as is so often the case, the problem stems from confusion between the frameworks of the individual and total capital. For the boat-builder, the cheaper the components he needs in order to produce, the better. If this cheapening means a lower rate of profit for his suppliers, that is of no concern to him. For total capital, the situation is clearly different. It is its own supplier. For total capital, the components of its production never cheapen absolutely (except in crises). Since they are (almost) identical to the total production of the previous cycle (15), their value is equal to that of the components of the previous cycle plus the surplus-value added in that cycle that is reinvested instead of consumed. That they have cheapened in bulk, means only that the same value of C, V and S, now equals more commodities, containing each less value. That is important for society in general, but not for the rate of profit. For total capital, a cheapening of the components doesn't mean that it pays less for them. It already owns them. That the components have cheapened can only mean then that the same value-amount of C + V now yields a larger profit. How could that be the case when, with each new cycle of production, more profit-yielding variable capital is being replaced by non-profit yielding machinery?
It's important to see the distinction between the overall effect and the side-effects within it. The point here is not to deny the latter's existence, but to show that they are limited, and tied to the decline in the rate of profit itself, so that, when this decline accelerates, they do too - like the increased air resistance a car encounters when it picks up speed. The overall effect of the rise in the organic composition is that the use of labour-power (V and S) declines relatively, so that the profit declines relatively too. The side-effect is that, within that relatively shrinking amount of labour-power, a shift occurs from paid to unpaid labour (S increases relative to V) because of the shrinking of the value of V. The limits to this side-effect are obvious:
The other side-effect is the relative decline in value of constant capital. For total capital, this does not result from the general rise of the organic composition: when the value content of C and V decline at the same pace, it doesn't affect their relative weight. But when the organic composition in the production of constant capital rises faster than in the production of consumer goods (as has been historically the case), then its mass (material volume) cheapens at a faster rate too, so that the increase of value of C is not as great as its increasing size would suggest. But this side-effect is also limited:
Furthermore, the rise in the rate of relative surplus-value and the relative cheapening of constant capital, are results of the rise of the organic composition in the previous cycle of production. Since the historical trend of the organic composition is one of continuous increase, the organic composition bringing on these side-effects is always lower than the one leading to a lesser yield of surplus-value in the current cycle.
So, for total capital, the components of the production process generally do not cheapen but become more expensive. And the faster their apparent cheapening (the rise of their material volume relative to their value), the faster also the rate of profit declines. Unless... but that belongs to the next chapter.
The counteracting influences
Given the vastness and complexity of the world economy, there are many factors that can have a minor effect on the average rate of profit, both negatively and positively. Marx mentions the most important moderating factors in his rather hastily drafted chapter on the counteracting influences in Capital volume 3, and points to others elsewhere in his work, such as the faster turnover of capital. This reduces the time during which capital cannot be used productively and thus increases its rate of profit. Improvements in transportation, communication, the reduction of inventories, and in general all improvements in the organisation of production aimed at maximizing the utilisation of productive capital, all work in that direction. But of those factors which directly increase the extraction of surplus-value without being caused by the same process that accelerates the decline of the average rate of profit, three important ones stand out:
Concerning the first, it is important to note that not all technological innovations are aimed at replacing human labour by machinery; not all of them imply a rise in the organic composition and a decline of the profit-rate. Some innovations serve to improve the quality or increase the diversity of commodities. This does not lower the profit-rate. Others reduce the bulk of the constant capital, notably the raw materials required for its production. Such innovations lower the production costs without reducing the relative utilisation of labour-power in the production process and therefore increase the rate of profit.
Second: the intensification of exploitation is obviously a very important counter-effect to the fall of the rate of profit. The more the latter is under pressure, the greater also the pressure on the working class. Capital can squeeze more surplus-value from the workers through a rise in absolute exploitation: the lengthening of the work day. In the US in recent years, for instance, the average work week has lengthened with several hours through the increased use of overtime. In countries such as India or China, the increase of absolute exploitation has been extreme. Exploitation is also intensified through the rise in relative exploitation: the shrinking of the paid portion of the labour-power used in production. We have seen earlier, that this occurs through the same process that decreases the quantity of labour-power in production and thus lowers the rate of profit. But over the course of capitalism's history, there was also a regular introduction and spread of new production methods which increase the extraction of surplus-value without increasing the organic composition of capital, such as all the techniques to exploit the workers more efficiently and to streamline the production flow, like the assembly-line pioneered by Ford , Taylor's techniques to separate and intensify all tasks, the generalisation of shift-work to keep the constant capital continuously in operation and various techniques to speed up the labour process introduced since the Second World War, and more recently, the Japanese methods to increase the complexity of the worker's tasks and the international division of labour within the same production process (‘the global assembly line’) made possible by the globalisation of the world economy. Everything that increases productivity without increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital, is a strong counter-effect to the fall in the rate of profit.
The paid portion of labour-power is of course also shrunk by directly attacking wage-levels. In this regard, Marx mentions the influence of relative overpopulation, which today exists almost everywhere in relation to the demand for labour, and which capitalism often created when it did not exist, through the importation of immigrant labour. The over-supply on the labour market, the existence of a vast reserve-army of the unemployed, is a powerful weapon to decrease wages, even below the value of labour-power. That is the case in most countries of the world today, even increasingly so in the most developed ones. Workers who receive the minimum-wage or less, usually cannot buy with their wages the most basic necessities to survive and have to be helped by family-members or others. That explains why more than a quarter of the adult male homeless population in the US are people who have full-time jobs. All these forms of intensified exploitation help capitalism quite a bit. But "the compensation of the reduced number of labourers by intensifying the degree of exploitation has certain insurmountable limits. It may, for this reason, well check the fall in the rate of profit, but cannot prevent it altogether."(17) These limits have also become greater because of capitalism's increasing dependence on highly skilled labour, in whose training it has invested a considerable quantity of value. This value would be wasted if they were exploited as brutally as unskilled workers can be, for it matters little to capital if the latter age prematurely because of their working conditions or die on the job, as long as the labour supply is plentiful. Also, the productivity of workers performing complex tasks is much more affected when working and living conditions deteriorate, than that of workers performing simple manual labour.
There is another powerful factor counteracting the fall of the rate of profit, which Marx briefly wrote about under the heading of ‘Foreign Trade’: the economic interaction between capital’s centre and its periphery, the latter comprising both older, economically inferior modes of production and weaker capitals. This is a factor which is often neglected or put in an erroneous analytical framework, as in Rosa Luxemburg's economic theory in which capitalism's extra-capitalist environment is seen as the key that first opens and later closes the door to accumulation. Luxemburg believed that the extra-capitalist areas provided the markets which realized the surplus-value for accumulation of capitalism, which in her eyes was incapable of self-expansion. We will discuss this mistake later on. Here we want to analyse the role of extra-capitalist and lowly capitalist areas in counteracting the fall of the rate of profit. As we shall see in the last part of this text, each widening of developed capitalism's terrain of action, made possible by breakthroughs in transportation and communication and improvements in capitalism's political-economic structures, provided a powerful but also temporary antidote against the fall of the rate of profit.
Evidently, the extra-capitalist environment played for capitalism in its genesis as essential a role as the womb does for the foetus. Capitalism wasn't conceived in vitro. But a womb is normally left intact after the baby is born. It would be more correct then to compare capitalism's birth with that of the young spider which feeds on the host body in which its mother deposited her eggs. In order to develop, capitalism had to rip apart the fabric of its "host-society", to turn its possessions into capital and its direct producers into exploitable workers. This process (brilliantly described in the chapter on "the so-called primitive accumulation" in Capital, volume 1) is, as Marx noted, "written in the annals of mankind with blood and fire". No less violent was the expansion of capitalist nations to the rest of the world. Whether to pillage the accumulated wealth of extra-capitalist societies, to gain access to raw materials, or to extract surplus-value from their inhabitants through forced labour, violence was routinely used.
Inevitable as it was, force was not always necessary because of capitalism's superior productivity: the cheap prices of its commodities were "the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls" (The Communist Manifesto).
Violent or not so violent, what did the expansion of capitalism mean for the tendential fall of its profit-rate? In his chapter on the counteracting influences to the fall of the rate of profit, Marx states that "foreign trade" (which he equates here with all economic exchanges with extra-capitalist and newly capitalist countries) has a dual, and contradictory effect: on the one hand, "it tends to raise the rate of profit by increasing the rate of surplus-value and lowering the value of constant capital", since it "cheapens the elements of constant capital and partly the necessities of life for which variable capital is exchanged" and it furthermore "acts in that direction by permitting an expansion of the scale of production". But this expansion of scale also "causes variable capital to shrink in relation to constant capital" and "thus hastens a fall in the rate of profit". (19) However, since this expansion of production is only ‘permitted’ by ‘foreign trade’ and not caused by it, but by "incessant revolutions in the methods of production themselves (and), by the general competitive struggle (..) as a means of self-preservation and under penalty of ruin" (20), "foreign trade", as understood here by Marx, should be seen as a genuine and important counteracting influence on the fall of the rate of profit, but also one with severe intrinsic and historical limits. How does it cheapen constant and variable capital and thus raise the profit-rate? Clearly, in so far as the expansion of European capitalism took the form of a forceful appropriation of the accumulated wealth and resources of other societies, this needs no explanation. Capital simply took whatever it could use, without paying. Very profitable. The same is true for the forceful appropriation of labour-power by capital, whether through forced labour, slavery or - more likely today - in exchange for wages below subsistence level. (21)
But normal trade with backward countries also raised the rate of profit because "there is competition with commodities produced in countries with inferior production facilities, so that the more advanced country sells its goods above their value (..) Just as a manufacturer who employs a new invention before it becomes generally used, undersells his competitors and yet sells his commodity above its individual value (..). He thus secures a surplus-profit." (22) In other words, the producer with the more advanced facilities sells his commodity at (or below) the average market value, determined by the average production costs of the producers for that market. Since his own production costs are much lower, because of the higher organic composition of his capital, his profits are much higher. These surplus profits do not realise surplus-value from his own workers (which is contained in his normal profit) but come from value that is produced and possessed locally by the buyers who are in an environment of lower organic composition; the buyers are willing to pay because what they get in exchange is of higher quality (although containing less value) than they could get for the same price from local producers. Likewise, when the capitalist from advanced countries buys from backward countries, the sellers there must compete against all other potential suppliers, including those with superior production facilities. More often than not, they can only do so by selling their commodities below their individual values and the buyer gets the un-realised value for free. So both through selling and buying, the producers of the backward countries inject value (coming from unpaid labour-power) into the capitalist circuit, thereby compensating for the shrinkage of variable capital in relation to constant capital. In this process, it is utterly unimportant whether the products thus obtained from the backward countries are the result of slavery, forced labour, normal capitalist exploitation of the work of direct producers. What only matters here, is the difference in organic composition and the resulting value-transfer.
But for the same reasons why the trade with backward countries is so beneficial for developed capitals, its impact is limited and historically declining. First, the accumulated wealth and resources of other societies that could be easily hauled away, were finite. Second, their backwardness, or lack of productivity, severely limited (and limits) their surplus product and thus their potential trade with advanced capitals. That was and is even more true in regard to extra-capitalist producers, who work primarily to meet their own needs and not those of a market. Third, the more capitalism develops, and thus the higher its organic composition and productivity becomes, the more it becomes dependent on highly skilled labour (and all the implied infrastructure) and the less it becomes possible for producers in backward areas to compensate for this productivity gap with the use of extremely cheap variable capital. Today, the productivity of an American agricultural worker is 130 times higher than that of an African agricultural worker, so the only agricultural commodities which a capitalist from a underdeveloped country can sell on the world market are of a uniquely tropical kind, such as coffee, tea, cocoa or bananas. Furthermore, many of the products which used to be grown as cash crops in these areas, such as rubber, sisal, vanilla and even sugar cane, have been replaced, partly or entirely, by chemical surrogates. As for the main remaining commercial interest for the advanced capitals in the most backward areas, the extraction of oil, copper and other minerals, this generally is done with production methods which are as capital-intensive (with the same high organic composition) as in advanced capitals, although there is still a benefit for the profit-rate, because a larger portion of the labour-power remains unpaid. This factor - the higher profit-rate made possible by the extremely low wage-levels in underdeveloped countries - has been gaining steadily in importance in recent decades, as we shall see further, because of the increased mobility of capital (due to technological as well as political causes), the decline of transportation- and communication costs and the emergence of readily available skilled and semi-skilled labour pools in many underdeveloped countries.
Surplus-value produced by direct producers and by workers in backward countries for the local market, in which advanced capitals do not participate (for whatever reason - because the market is too small or because of tariffs or other obstacles) had no bearing on the profits of advanced capitals and therefore did not enter into the calculation of the average profit-rate of advanced capitals. In general, the more markets were separated, the more the average rate of profit was constituted locally; and the more they are integrated, with free access for all capitals, the more a global average of profit dominates. The replacement of local rates of profit by a global average rate of profit is a long-term historical process that is reaching its conclusion today. We are living the moment in which the last reserves of one of the main counter-tendencies to the fall of the rate of profit are being tapped and thus inevitably, exhausted. The globalisation of the economy has made advanced capital so omnipresent that markets in which only local conditions determine the local average rate of profit, have practically disappeared. If the commodities of high tech capital are not materially present on a market, they are there in spirit, that is, as a threat to local producers who must keep their prices so low that it doesn't become profitable to import them (unless they are kept out by the state - for which the penalties have increased along with the globalisation).
How can those local producers do this? In order to survive, extreme exploitation is an absolute requirement. Workers are forced to accept wages far below the value of their labour-power, even if this means that basic needs remain unmet and their productive lives are cut short. Direct producers (small farmers, etc.) are forced to accept prices far below the value of their labour, even if they can barely survive. Local capitalists (whether private or state) are forced to accept a profit level far below the one they would obtain without the looming presence of advanced capital. (But since the price of labour-power is so much lower than in advanced countries, they get some compensation: the same income buys them more goods and services than it would in the developed countries.) The clear winner is advanced capitalism, which obtains a surplus profit in its trade with the underdeveloped countries and benefits from the low price of labour, when it directly invests in them. Their source of profit is not only the labour-power of the workers, but also the unpaid value of the producers who make the things these workers need, and who are forced to sell their commodities at such low prices that workers can survive despite their measly wages. As we noted earlier, technological as well as political developments are making the exploitation of this source of profit more feasible, even if the global demand for commodities produced at a low organic rate constantly diminishes. The current trend of moving production to low-wage countries will therefore surely continue and even accelerate when new technological and other changes make it even more cost-effective. But, by doing so, capitalism is also approaching the limits of this counter-influence. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We shall come back to this in the last part of this text.
Through most of capitalism's history, local and global rates of profit existed side by side. Those varying degrees of separation and integration made it all but impossible to calculate the underlying average rate of profit in trade between countries. Marx explored some of the different situations that arise when he explained the law of the equalisation of the rate of profit (Capital, volume 3, chapter 10). We shall come back to this later. But in general, as we have seen, trade between capitals of different countries is based on the constitution of an average rate of profit that rewards the more productive and punishes the more backward producers. On top of that, the exchange could be even more beneficial for advanced capitals. If an advanced capital is the sole supplier of a commodity on the market of a backward country, because that commodity is not produced locally and other advanced capitals have no access to that market (as was the case in the colonies), then this advanced capital occupies a monopoly position, so that local purchasing power will be the only limit to its surplus profit.
This is one of the main reasons why some (not all) colonial trade was so beneficial for capitalism during its ascendant period. Most of all for British capital, investment in colonial trade in North America and India yielded fabulous profits. This phenomenon inspired Lenin to his theory on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism according to which monopoly-capitalism of the advanced countries have become dependent on the export of capital to their colonial possessions where, shielded from competition, they could reap surplus profits. This is not the place for a thorough critique of Lenin's theory, which did not really give an analysis of the root-causes of capitalism's crisis. But if he had been right, the decolonisation following World War Two would have plunged capitalism into deep crisis. But reality has clearly demonstrated the falsehood of Lenin's theory as well as the intrinsic and historical limitations of the trade with backward countries as a check on the fall of the rate of profit. Intrinsic, because the backward, labour-intensive production that yields higher rates of profit also limits productivity, surplus production and thus potential trade. Historical, because the development of capitalism inevitably knocks down the barriers to the integration of the world market so that the average rate of profit everywhere is increasingly determined not by local but by global conditions of production. During capitalism's ascendant period, other nations could catch up with England's formidable lead in productivity, precisely because the relative separation of national markets created differences in the national average rates of profits, so that capitals with a lower organic composition could use their higher profit-rates to fuel their own industrialisation process. In decadent capitalism, this has become impossible, not only because of the ever higher threshold for capital-formation but also because of the global equalisation of the general rate of profit. As we shall see further, in the rare success stories of the 20th Century, the use of tariffs played at most a minor role. Another illustration of this phenomenon was the spectacular rise in the rate of profit in areas such as Latin America during world wars, when they were by and large cut off from imports from the advanced capitals and the market value of their exports were largely regulated by the local production conditions. Today, the separation between rates of profit is disappearing. Furthermore, the more technology-intensive the world becomes, the less can production processes with backward methods fit into the global production-chain. All that these countries have left to offer is their extreme rate of exploitation.
To summarize the point on ‘foreign trade’, we can conclude that every outward expansion of capitalism that leads to a greater inclusion of ‘free’ value (23) in the global production circuit, either through the appropriation of material elements for the constant capital, the use of free or very cheap variable capital, or the incorporation of production at a lower organic composition, counteracts the fall of the rate of profit.
Logically, we can extend this point to the inward expansion of capitalism as well. While capitalism expanded outward, even within the most developed countries, substantial parts of the economy (especially agriculture) remained non-capitalist and dominated by direct producers. Also, because of the intrinsic nature of their production methods, in many sectors of ‘Department II’ (the production of consumer goods) the organic composition increased much slower than average and often there too, the input of petty commodity producers remained important (such as furniture, shoe- and clothing-repair, bakery and all sorts of food preparation). For the reasons we mentioned earlier, trade with these petty commodity-producers and labour-intensive enterprises boosted the average profit-rate for advanced capitals, not because of the non-capitalist nature of some of the production, as Luxemburgists would have it, but because of its lower than average organic composition.
Again, on the surface this is hard to see because of the mediation of competition. Capital with a higher organic composition obtains a surplus profit in trade with producers with a lower organic composition. Furthermore, the capitalisation of agriculture and food-preparation leads to cheaper food prices and therefore lowers the cost of variable capital. Thus, a country where this capitalisation occurs faster than elsewhere obtains a competitive advantage. A lower degree of capitalisation and non-capitalised production are therefore a competitive disadvantage for a particular capital or country. Yet for capital as a whole, it is an advantage because the same amount of capital yields more surplus-value.
Marx called the process, by which a country is transformed from an economy based on capitalist production at a low organic composition supplemented by non-capitalist production, to one based on capitalist production with a high organic composition, which has invaded every nook and cranny of economic activity and in which, consequently, every aspect of society's superstructure is permeated by capital as a social relation, "the transition from formal domination of capital to real domination." Evidently, this transition goes hand in hand with an aggravation of the fall of the general rate of profit. Today, this transition is more or less completed in the most developed countries. But not elsewhere. Yet even in the most backward economies, value produced under "formal domination", at a low organic composition, tends to enter in smaller rather than greater quantities in the global production cycle. The productivity gap is now so wide that the global economy, while tightening international integration, tends to expel rather than incorporate production at a low organic composition, almost regardless how cheap the wages are there. As a result, many workers and others in the so-called "third world" are forced to return to subsistence-farming to survive. Because of this, the number of people living from extra-capitalist production is increasing, rather than vanishing. As the Communist Workers Organisation (CWO) correctly pointed out in an article on Africa, this illustrates that "the historic crisis cannot be caused by exhaustion of pre-capitalist areas, on the contrary, this crisis is the reason why they cannot be exhausted." (24)
The profit-rate and the stock market
To return to Marx’s exposition on the counteracting influences, his final point - merely a paragraph (that "cannot be more fully treated for the present") - concerns "the increase of stock capital" which in his view can amortize the fall of the profit-rate somewhat "in the sense that these capitals, although invested in large productive enterprises, yield only large or small amounts of interest, so-called dividends, after all costs have been deducted. In railways for instance. These do not therefore go into leveling the general rate of profit, because they yield a lower than average rate of profit. If they did enter into it, the general rate of profit would fall much lower." (25)He adds: "Theoretically, they may be included in the calculation, and the result would then be a lower rate of profit than the seemingly existing rate."
But, in fact, there is no reason not to include them like any other capital invested in production. The rather curious distinction Marx makes here, may be due to the still relatively modest role of stock capital in his time, when industrial, financial and commercial capital were still separate categories and most companies were owned by bourgeois families, who by now play only a minor role in the management of capital. If an industrial capitalist of his time succeeded in obtaining capital to expand his production from outside the realm of industrial capital, through the stock issues, and paying dividends much below the average rate of profit, naturally this was a good deal for him and beneficial for the average rate of profit of industrial capital. But such an arrangement is only possible if those investors have nowhere else to go, so that they must be content with a low return. Today, ownership of stocks in a variety of companies and sectors and even countries is much more typical for the capitalist class than direct ownership of an entire company. The development of capitalism has led to an increasing concentration of capital, resulting in companies much too big to be individually owned. Much larger capitals are required to compete in today's world. The mobility of capital increased hand in hand with its concentration. Today, if stocks in, say, railroads yield low dividends the stock prices will decline meaning that capital will leave that railroad company in search of a higher return elsewhere. In short, because of the transformations wrought by the growing concentration and mobility of capital, "the increase of stock capital" is no longer a counteracting influence at all. Sometimes, it has the opposite effect.
The more the average organic composition increases, the rate of profit declines and the threshold of capital-formation increases, the more companies (and countries) become dependent on outside investment. The more their demand for capital increases, the more companies are forced to offer high yields to attract the necessary funds. This results in the opposite of what Marx described: instead of profits being helped by low dividends on stocks, the need to pay out high dividends and other form of interest is an increasingly crushing weight on the profit-rate. But this coin has another side. These high dividends fuel speculation, as more and more capital moves to the stock market to get a piece of this rich pie. This in turn creates an increasing gap between ‘the real economy’ and the stock market, between the profitability of companies and their stock prices. In recent decades, we have seen repeatedly how stock markets feverishly rose while the 'real economy' was sharply contracting. Inevitably, such bubbles must burst. The inflated stocks take a tumble and their owners lose billions of dollars in a single day. If such a crash is contained, it can be rather healthy for capital as a whole, though painful for the investors who are wiped out. Anything that cheapens existing capital (even, and especially, recession and war, as we shall see further on) has at least as a side-effect that it helps check the decline of the profit-rate. But beneficial crashes are the corrective exceptions; as a rule, the increase of stock capital, indispensable as it has become, is today indirectly more harmful than helpful for the general rate of profit and increasingly so as its decline accelerates and a rapid accumulation of debt is used to keep the accumulation of production going.
Marx couldn't foresee everything. If he had had the time to treat this subject more fully, as he intended, he probably would have come to the conclusion that there is no difference in this regard between stocks and other forms of interest-bearing capital, whose rate of return he did not see as counteracting the fall of the rate of profit because "the division into those particular categories (of capital are) immaterial to it (the general rate of profit)." (26).
However, his observation about stocks remains valid when applied to stock purchases made with the small but numerable sums of money that go into saving accounts, pension plans, life insurance, mutual funds etc. On this money which comes not only from capitalists but also from middle layers and members of the working class who put aside a portion of their wages for their old age etc, the net rate of return is normally modest, sometimes hardly above the level of inflation because small investors don't have the competitive leverage of large investors. Most of the yield stays in the hands of banks and other financial firms, which today are mostly merged or intertwined with industrial capital. Therefore, in this way, larger capital appropriates value from smaller ones and from the savings of the working class, which helps to compensate the decline of the profit-rate somewhat.
While the total amount of these small investments is impressive, it still represents only a modest fraction of the total capital in circulation and can therefore only have a modest impact on the rate of profit. It can make a difference for the competitive position of a particular country, however. For example, the high rate of personal savings in Japan has "traditionally provided banks and insurance companies with masses of capital, then lent at low rates to Japanese manufacturers, giving them a cost advantage over foreign rivals." (27)
A very different view is developed by the group Kamunist Kranti, which thinks that "the increase of stock capital" effectively neutralizes the fall of the rate of profit. According to Kamunist Kranti, the law of the fall of the rate of profit applies only to small capitalists The concentration and centralisation of capital is hastened, so that the capital needed to launch new companies or to expand production, becomes progressively larger. Consequently, "individual capitalists, constrained by their own limited existence, find it extremely difficult to organize sufficient wealth to expand production." (28) For big capitals, however, there is no problem because "the growth of the mass of profit more than compensates for the falling rate of profit" because the scale of their production always grows, so that they always exploit more labour-power. While Marx pointed to stock-ownership as a counter-effect to the fall of the rate of profit, according to Kamunist Kranti (KK) he failed to see how this counter-effect would develop to such a scale that it would neutralize the fall of the rate of profit. Because in Marx’s time, stock-ownership was still the exception rather than the rule, he didn't consider the possibility that joint-stock and state-owned enterprises would become the dominant forms of capitalist production. Stock-ownership solves the problem of new capital formation, in KK's eyes, because it eliminates the dependency of the capitalist from his own, individual wealth. By pooling the funds of investors, he can keep up with the rising threshold of capital formation. Because he did not foresee this, KK thinks "it is not surprising to find Marx writing in Capital, volume 3:
"The rate of profit, i.e. the relative increment of capital, is above all important to all new offshoots of capital searching to find an independent place for themselves. And as soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which mass of profits compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out."(29)
This is a passage rich in meaning, which Marx would have probably elabourated if he would have had the chance. Kamunist Kranti seems to think that what Marx meant was that accumulation would stop because those few big capitals, obtaining already a huge mass of profit, would lack the incentive to expand. Why he thought that this would "extinguish the flame of production altogether" despite the supposedly healthy profits of those big capitals, KK fails to explain. The problem - it seems to me - is that KK has misunderstood the reason why, for the bigger capitals, the mass of profit can compensate for the falling rate of profit, and had therefore also misunderstood Marx's quote.
The mass of profit grows for bigger capitals, in part because they tend to employ an ever larger absolute amount of labour-power, even if labour-power declines relatively in their production process. But that does not compensate for the falling rate of profit, because the absolute amount of profit that is required for accumulation increases likewise. But what does compensate for the falling rate of profit is the mass of profit they obtain through competition with smaller capitals. The lower organic composition of the latter raises the average rate of profit and makes it possible for the bigger capitals to obtain a surplus profit because their production costs are lower than the average. Surplus-value extracted by those smaller capitals flows, because of competition, into the pockets of the big capitals. But if all the small capitals are driven from the market, and if no new small capitals can emerge because the rise in the average organic composition has raised the threshold for capital formation to unscaleable heights, then the source of this transfer of surplus-value has dried up for the big capitals, and the flame of production - finding less fuel (surplus-value) - begins to flicker.
Kamunist Kranti fails to see to what extent the situation Marx describes as a theoretical extreme has in the meantime already become a reality. Big capitals have indeed gobbled up the whole world market, expelled countless small capitals from it, and raised the threshold for capital formation out of reach for almost "all-new offshoots of capital, searching to find an independent place for themselves". This is not difficult to see, especially in KK's own country, or in the rest of the so-called Third World. Take agriculture. There is plenty of land and labour-power available, in India as elsewhere, that could be employed for capitalist agriculture. Yet these means of production can't be mobilised because a few big agribusiness-capitals firmly dominate the market and have raised the threshold for capital formation so high that no new capitals can compete with them. So fertile land is wasted, rural population is unemployed and starving or forced to subsistence farming with very little productivity, while the agribusiness itself must be propped up with huge subsidies. In other words, the flame of production is waning indeed.
If big capitals were not be subject to the fall of the rate of profit, this quote from Marx would be absolutely incomprehensible. If they were able by themselves to generate enough mass of profit to compensate for the falling rate, there would be no reason whatsoever for the flame of production to die out. In KK's view, the emergence of the stock market as the primary conduit for capital-formation, allows the smaller capitals to get around the problem of the falling rate of profit, because, "for stock capital the rate of profit does not have that crucial significance that it has for individual owners (..) Investment continues as long as the absolute amount of profit remains an attraction to the investors. The production process is impaired only when sufficient returns are not realised even to reproduce the faction at its previous scale. At most, the stimulating principle of capitalist commodity production becomes absolute profit, whatever the rate of profit be." (p6) There is some truth in this. If faced with the choice between a very small profit or no profit at all, a capital-owner will of course choose the first. If a capitalist (or global capital) has no longer enough money to continue accumulating at the pace dictated by the rising organic composition, his accumulation will slow down, but not disappear. Unless we take into account the contradiction which capital creates between its productive forces and its market, there is no reason for "the flame of production to extinguish all together", despite Marx's broad-brushed statement. If no realisation problem occurs, investment in productive forces with an organic composition lower than that technically possible can create profit too, especially when it goes hand in hand with extreme forms of exploitation, as we saw earlier. Yet competition sharply limits accumulation in capital with a lower than average organic composition, because it transfers surplus-value extracted by this capital to those with a higher organic composition.
That's why KK's position quoted above is also mistaken. KK assumes that the dynamic of the stock market counteracts the concentration of capital. That it creates a movement of capital to the smaller capitalists, enabling them to overcome the threshold of capital-formation. Where does this flow of capital stock come from? As we have seen, to some extent from workers and middle layers, but mostly from capitalists, small and large. But the stock market does exactly the opposite of what KK assumes: it creams off the savings of workers, middle layers and small capitalists and transfers them to big capitals.
The deregulation of financial markets has only reinforced this flow. With the globalisation of stock-trading, the competition between industrial capitals for investment capital has intensified all over the world. Who wins this competition? Generally, those with the highest rates of profit and with the best prospects for a future high rate of profit. Amongst those, there are some small new companies at the cutting edge. But most of these are financed privately or with bank loans and when they go "public", they are usually quickly gobbled up by larger ones. By and large, the bigger capitals, with the highest organic rate, attract the most stock-capital because of their competitive advantage. The stock market facilitates the concentration of capital, not the opposite. Its deregulation since the 1980's led to a rapid increase of take-oversee and mergers, i.e.., more and more capital goes into fewer and fewer hands. That is true for every economic sector and it's true too for the management of stock capital itself. While in 1965, big institutional investors held only 16 percent of corporate stock in the US, today they hold more than 50 percent. These big Wall Street funds have no loyalty to companies, only to the highest rate of return. While they are always on the lookout for the underestimated little stock, they steer the bulk of their capital to the big companies. The more the gap between developed capitals and backward capitals widens, the more they organise a flight of capital from the second to the first. That's why the New York stock exchange is booming as never before, while at the same time the Mexican stock exchange has collapsed, so that industrial capital in Mexico shrivels, because of lack of capital to continue its accumulation.
KK seems to think this poses no fundamental problem, because even if there is not enough surplus-value realised "to expand at a point of time", you just wait a while and "over a period of time, over several turnovers, the produced and realised surplus-value would be sufficient to expand production. Accumulation, then, would be decelerated or delayed but not stopped or truncated" (p.7). Such a delay might be possible in a pre-or post-capitalist society, where the only absolute requirement would be that enough means of production and sustenance are produced so that society can continue to exist. But for capitalism, accumulation is not a luxury which it can chose to forego "for several turnovers". Why? Because it is organised on the base of competition. If, for instance, Mexican capital were to skip a few cycles of accumulation, its relative backwardness would proportionally increase, so that, instead of solving its problems by building up a fund for future expansion, it would accelerate the flight of capital to the US and other developed capitals, where the relative high rate of profit creates the illusion that the fall of the rate of profit doesn't really exist.
The supposedly theoretical situation KK describes - of a shortage of surplus-value impeding accumulation - is a growing reality for an ever larger part of the world. KK is mistaken when it thinks that this creates only a delay which prepares for the resumption of healthy accumulation. On the contrary, it accelerates capitalism's unequal development and thereby both undercuts the extraction of surplus-value and exacerbates capitalism's market-contradiction. KK is mistaken when it thinks that the growing importance of the stock market counteracts this trend. On the contrary, it facilitates it.
KK is right, however, when it insists that the fall of the rate of profit in itself cannot fully explain capitalism's tendency to global collapse. To understand the mechanisms of capitalism's breakdown, we must analyze the dynamic interaction between the progression of the fall of the rate of profit and capitalism's market-contradiction.
Mattick VERSUS Marx
Yet that is precisely what the influential Marxist writer Paul Mattick maintains we should not do. He brushes off Marx's repeated insistence on the fundamental importance of the market contradiction as confused or "unclear writing". We shall analyze his mistakes on this subject, as well as his blindness for the contradiction between capital in its money-form and its commodity-form, later on. Here we aim to show that the very basis of his crisis theory (and of that of Henryck Grossmann, in whose writings Mattick's position is anchored), his concept of the law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit, is itself mistaken.
Mattick may see himself as the true defender of Marx’s crisis theory - insisting that Marx had "not two crisis theories but one" (the fall of the rate of profit), as if there were some law that says that every process, no matter how complex, must be reduced to a single cause - but his view on the fall of the rate of profit is quite different from Marx's. We saw earlier, when we discussed the relation between the rate and mass of profit, that Marx shows that for the profitability of capital as a whole it is irrelevant how many commodities are produced. When the volume of production increases and all other conditions remain unchanged, "the mass of profit remains the same", it is only "distributed differently over the total amount of commodities". (30) Yet Mattick thinks that it's precisely "the increase in the quantity of commodities" which maintains "the profitability of capital" (31). As with so many others, he confuses the frameworks of the individual capitalist (for whom the above is true, because the relative growth of his productivity, his greater output per capital advanced, gives him a competitive advantage and thus increases his profit) and capital as a whole (for whom competition does not exist and which therefore obtains as much profit as there is surplus-value extracted, regardless of the quantity of production).
The difference is crucial. One cannot understand the dynamic of capitalism and its tendency to collapse without realising this: in general terms, for total capital, greater productivity means a decrease of the rate of profit, and for the individual capitalist, greater productivity means an increase of his rate of profit. This paradoxical truth says it all in a nutshell: why capitalism's development must turn into its breakdown, why its disease is deadly, why there is no cure, since the apparent cure and the disease are one and the same, why the only real cure - production of use-value instead of exchange-value - requires the destruction of capitalism. Without understanding this, one's analysis remains imprisoned in a vicious circle, as in this statement of the CWO, a staunch follower of Mattick: "the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is offset by the greater productivity of the workers who produce a greater mass of profit" (32) The greater productivity is the result of the rise of capital's organic composition, which causes the rate of profit to fall. Yet this fall is compensated... by greater productivity! Luxemburgists, as we shall see, escape from this vicious circle with the deus ex machina of the extra-capitalist market, but what escape is there for Mattick and his followers, after eliminating capitalism's market contradiction?
There is not really one. But before we come to that, let's first see how Mattick explains the beneficial effect of increased productivity on capital's profitability in value-terms. He is, after all, a Marxist and therefore cannot pretend that commodities have an intrinsic exchange-value, regardless of the amount of labour-power they contain. Somehow, he must find a way to argue that labour which sets in motion more constant capital, not only produces more use-values, but yields also more surplus-value. To explain the mystery, Mattick has no other recourse but to fall back on the rise of the rate of surplus-value. "The rate of profit can remain unchanged despite a higher organic composition of capital only if the rate of surplus-value rises rapidly. With a quick enough increase in the rate of surplus-value, the rate of profit can even rise." (33) Mattick (and he's not the only one) seems to be under the illusion that the rate of surplus-value can rise without limits. That would indeed explain why greater productivity would equal a greater mass or profit. Thus, for him, the fact that "the product of a day's work in a developed nation is exchanged for the product of more than a day's work in an underdeveloped country" (..) means only that "relative surplus-value is not the same as absolute surplus-value, since it permits the production of a greater surplus-value with less direct labour time." (34)
"Greater surplus-value" with "less labour time"? (It's not clear what Mattick means here with "direct" labour time. Is "indirect" labour time - for instance education - no cost to capital?) Greater surplus-value means only that a greater portion of the working day is unpaid, chiefly because the means of subsistence become cheaper, which reduces the value of labour-power and thus the cost of variable capital. It does not mean, as Mattick seems to assume, a greater output per worker (although, again, that does increase the profit of the individual capitalist). We have seen that the means of subsistence are generally much cheaper in underdeveloped countries than in developed ones. There are, as we've seen, other factors that increase the rate of relative surplus-value, such as the intensification of labour. But overall, both the rates of relative and absolute exploitation are clearly higher in underdeveloped countries. These rates can therefore not explain the above-mentioned unequal exchange. The reason it's unequal, is the respective position of the value of "a day's work in a developed nation" and of the value of "a day's work in an underdeveloped country" to the world market value: the first is under the market value, the second above. The first gets a surplus profit, which is invisibly fed by the value that the second cannot realize on the market.
We have seen earlier, when we discussed the cheapening of the components of production, why the increase of the rate of relative surplus-value does not compensate the fall of the rate of profit, contrary to what Mattick believes. The reader must wonder by now, how a fall in the rate of profit, which is counterbalanced by an incessantly rising rate of surplus-value, and in the absence of any realisation problem, can ever lead to the breakdown of capitalism. Here is how Mattick sees it:
"On the assumption of an irresistibly continuous accumulation of capital, the mutually compensating but contradictory movements of the rate of surplus-value and the rate of profit must eventually create a situation excluding further accumulation. While the rate of surplus-value must be increased enormously if the fall in the rate of profit is to be halted, the variable capital still continues to decline relative to the constant, and the number of producers of surplus-value declines in comparison with the quantity of valorizing capital. Ever fewer workers must create an ever greater surplus-value in order to produce the profits required by the capital already in existence if it is to continue to expand. Inevitably, a point will be reached at which the greatest quantity of surplus-value that can be possibly extorted from the diminishing working class is no longer sufficient to augment the value of the accumulated capital." (35)
This passage evokes images of old-fashioned futurism, of the machinist-modernism of the thirties, the same period in which Grossmann formulated this theory. The constant capital becomes so humogeneous that even "the greatest quantity of surplus-value" squeezed from the diminishing working class, cannot finance another Metropolis-like giant monster-factory, so that accumulation grinds to a halt. In reality, the rising organic composition expresses itself more in the expulsion of human labour than in an ever growing size of the constant capital. There is always less labour-power needed to produce the goods and services which the paying customers of the world can afford, which doesn't necessarily mean that the investment in constant capital needed to make a certain commodity, grows proportionally. You might say that this boils down to the same, that these are just two sides of the same coin. This is true but it is important to realize that the present is not like the future imagined in the thirties. While the concentration of capital is higher than ever and the threshold of capital-formation in many sectors, especially the most profitable ones, has become very high, we have also witnessed a decentralisation of production, so that not every investment requires a huge amount of capital. The point is, the way the fall of the rate of profit progresses, is not by reaching a certain point ‘x’ at which all accumulation stops. The point Mattick says will be reached, at which there is not enough surplus-value to expand all "the capital already in existence", was reached a long time ago, and was reached at several times in capitalism's history. When this occurs, competition decides which capital gets the surplus-value necessary to accumulate and which falls off the boat. The weakest competitors are eliminated and their market share goes to the stronger capitals. But Mattick's theory doesn't explain why the latter, who do obtain surplus-value for expansion, should suffer too; why the crisis must be total and lead to a breakdown of capitalism, when the lack of surplus-value to expand affects not total capital but only its weakest parts. There is no explanation, unless we understand the interaction between the fall in the rate of profit and capitalism's market contradiction.
The fall in the rate of profit is a structural problem that worsens over time, making the collapse of production, the wholesome devaluation of capital, ever more an objective necessity. But this necessity becomes reality because of a breakdown in the sphere of the realisation of capital, in the conversion of commodity-capital into money-capital. Mattick cannot understand this. At best, his theory can only explain a partial crisis, not a total one. But with his belief in the counter-balancing effect of the rising rate of surplus-value, there isn't even a reason why the fall of the rate profit is itself inevitable. If the rate of surplus-value rises fast enough, so he thinks, the rate of profit goes up, not down. He seems to imagine a race between rising productivity (which he equates with a rising rate of relative surplus-value) and the growing size of the constant capital needed to expand, which is eventually won by the latter. But that doesn't seem unavoidable, as long as the first increased faster than the second. Whether the rate of profit goes up or down, would then solely depend on the progress and nature of technology, determining which rises faster: productivity or the relative size of the constant capital. So Mattick, trying to follow Marx's footprints, stumbled into the trap of technological determinism, without even realising it.
Part 1 - The Inevitable Fall in the Rate of Profit
Part 2 - The Immanent Barrier to Market Expansion
Part 3 - From Decline to Collapse
Part 4 - The Impasse of Globalization
Part 5 - The Law of Value of the World Market
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