150th Anniversary of Capital: Reading Wage-Labour and Capital (Part II)

This post is second in the two-part commemoration of Capital’s 150th anniversary (last year); part I was a commentary on Francis Wheen’s biography of Capital and Part II undertakes a critical engagement with Wage-Labour and Capital (available freely at Marxists.org), which were originally lectures, and later published as a set of articles in 1849 in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (which roughly translates into the ‘New Rhenish Newspaper’). Marx had delivered the lectures at the German Working Men’s Club of Brussels in 1847, a year before the publication of the Communist Manifesto and twenty years before the publication of Das Kapital.

wage labour capitalWage-Labour and Capital is made up of 9 short chapters, with the largest chapter containing 5 pages, and a total of 48 pages. In the introduction, F. Engels provides his reasons for altering the original text of Marx, and writes “this pamphlet is not as Marx wrote it in 1849, but approximately as Marx would have written it in 1891” (p. 6). To assess the merits of Engel’s editorial intervention, one needs to compare it with Marx’s original. Marx intended his writings to be understood by the workers and therefore they do not “presuppose a knowledge of even the most elementary notions of political economy” (p. 16).

In capitalism, according to Marx, “it appears that the capitalist buys their labour with money, and that for money they sell him their labour. But this is merely an illusion. What they actually sell to the capitalist for money is their labour-power” (p. 17). Therefore, labour-power “is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales” (p. 17). And wages is the “special name for the price of labour-power”, a “peculiar commodity”. The wage-workers, who owns labour-power, does not really have a choice in deciding whether to sell it to the capitalist or not, but is forced to “in order to live” (p. 19). While it appears that the worker has a choice, in essence, she does not (this idea can help transform the dominant labour-leisure trade-off story). Then Marx points out that this feature – the idea of free labour – is particular to capitalism, and not found in slave or feudal societies. While the worker owns labour-power, the capitalist owns “raw materials, tools, and means of life” (p. 20). The following description of work (and life) deserves to be quoted in full.

“Life for him begins where this activity [work] ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours’ work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed.” (p. 19)

Subsequently, Marx discusses the determination of commodity prices, which contains an account of competition. The latter is studied in three parts: “among the sellers”, “among the buyers”, and “between the buyers and the sellers” (p. 21). It is this competition which seeks the highest “customary profits” among the different sectors, and this constant “immigration” (p. 23) tends to equalise the rate of profits across sectors. This force of competition also tends to bring the actual price of a commodity close to its “cost of production” (p. 24). The “fluctuations” occasioned by competition is not an “accident” or exception but the “law” contrary to the accounts of the “bourgeois economists” (p. 24). Thus, “In the totality of this disorderly movement is to be found its order” (p. 24).

Wages are regulated by the cost of production of labour-power, which “is the cost required for the maintenance of the labourer as a labourer, and for his education and training as a labourer” (p. 26). In other words, it is “the cost of the existence and propagation of the worker” (p. 27). Here, Marx is referring to the wages for the entire class of workers and not of an individual worker because “millions of workers, do not receive enough to be able to exist and to propagate themselves” (p. 27).

Most economists define capital as produced means of production, and this is the starting point of their analysis. But Marx pushes the starting point further and rightly labels capital as “accumulated labour”, as the raw materials, instruments, and machines were also created by labour. Capital is also a “social relation of production” (p. 29). As noted earlier, the existence of wage labour is a characteristic of capitalism where workers are forced to sell their labour power to the capitalist in order to live. And as Marx writes, “The existence of a class which possesses nothing but the ability to work is a necessary presupposition of capital” (p. 30). Furthermore, capital, or accumulated labour dominates living labour.

Mainstream (marginalist) economics is built on the marginal productivity theory of distribution which states that under conditions of perfect competition, in equilibrium, workers are paid the marginal product of capital and capitalists get the marginal product of capital – a harmonious explanation of income distribution. In contrast, Marx argues that wages are profit are inversely related pointing to the fundamental conflict characterising income distribution in a capitalist society (p. 37). In the same chapter (VII), Marx outlines two major routes through which profits increase: (1) increase in aggregate demand and (2) technological improvements (see an earlier post on the link between demand, profits, and employment). In the following chapter, Marx reiterates the distributional conflict: “the interests of capitals and the interests of wage-labour are diametrically opposed to each other” (p. 39). And “If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profit of capital rises disproportionately faster. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social chasm that separates him from the capitalist has widened” (p. 40). This underscores the social nature of economic relations, an aspect which marginalist economics has eschewed with its assumption of the independence of individual preferences.

The following remark about economists by Marx is appropriate for our current times: “The economists tell us, to be sure, that those labourers who have been rendered superfluous by machinery find new venues of employment” (p. 45). I shall end this post by quoting Marx on capitalist accumulation, crises, and exploitation of markets, since it continues to remain relevant today.

“…capitalists are compelled … to exploit the already existing gigantic means of production on an ever-increasing scale, and for this purpose to set in motion all the mainsprings of credit, in the same measure do they increase the industrial earthquakes, in the midst of which the commercial world can preserve itself only by sacrificing a portion of its wealth, its products, and even its forces of production, to the gods of the lower world – in short, the crises increase. They become more frequent and more violent, if for no other reason, than for this alone, that in the same measure in which the mass of products grows, and therefore the needs for extensive markets, in the same measure does the world market shrink ever more, and ever fewer markets remain to be exploited, since every previous crisis has subjected to the commerce of the world a hitherto unconquered or but superficially exploited market” (pp. 47-8)

 

 

 

Summers, Secular Stagnation and Aggregate Demand Deficiency

The foundations of a coherent theory of activity levels were first put forth by Kalecki and Keynes in the 1930s. Their economic theory states that an economy’s output levels are determined by aggregate demand and that there are no economic forces which ensure full employment of labour or the full utilization of capacity. In other words, aggregate supply adapts to aggregate demand. This principle was then extended to the question of economic growth, most notably by Roy Harrod. Subsequent work in this line of enquiry suggests that growth is demand led, as opposed to the mainstream/neoclassical view of economic growth as supply driven.

The idea of secular stagnation, recently articulated and advocated by Larry Summers, will be critically appraised in this blog post amidst the above backdrop. Here, we almost exclusively focus on Summers’ 2014 paper in Business Economics titled ‘U.S. Economic Prospects: Secular Stagnation, Hysteresis, and the Zero Lower Bound’. The principle (also simultaneously a policy prescription) of secular stagnation can be stated as follows: since interest rates have reached their lower bounds and aggregate activity levels are depressed, the solution is expansionary fiscal policy. Why are aggregate activity levels depressed? Secular stagnation suggests that negative fluctuations re-quilibrate the economy to a position characterised by lower output and employment levels. Moreover, ‘the amplitude of fluctuation appears large, not small’ (p. 65).

Macroeconomic equilibrium is characterised by equality between actual and potential output. According to Summers, ‘essentially all of the convergence between the economy’s level of output and its potential has been achieved not through the economy’s growth, but through downward revisions in its potential.’ (p. 66) This is because of aggregate demand insufficiency. ‘The largest part [of the downward trend in potential] is associated with reduced capital investment, followed closely by reduced labor input.’ (p. 66) To put it differently, aggregate demand deficiency leads to the unemployment (and underemployment) of labour and underutilization of capacity.

Despite Summers’ correct identification of the problem, his marginalist conceptualization forces him to connect this with the ‘equilibrium or normal real rate of interest’ which equilibrates saving and investment. As a consequence, he argues that a ‘significant shift in the natural balance between savings and investment’ (p. 69) has occurred. This post will only state that the idea of the rate of interest being sufficiently sensitive to changes in planned saving and investment is one that has been severely criticized and rightly so. [A follow-up post will examine this matter more closely.]

Towards the end of the paper, Summers makes a point which Keynes (and Kalecki) made in the 1930s: ‘We are seeing very powerfully a kind of inverse Say’s Law. Say’s Law was the proposition that supply creates its own demand. Here, we are observing that lack of demand creates its own lack of supply’ (p. 71). However, Summers states this as a contingent principle and not a general proposition as it is in Keynes (or Kalecki). This is not surprising given Summers’ economics being marginalist in nature.

Therefore, since demand creates its supply, Summers advocates public investments and vocally states the counterproductive nature of fiscal austerity. Furthermore, he hypothesises that ‘increases in demand actually reduce the long run debt-to-GDP ratio’ (p. 73). Lastly, he favours policy measures which place ‘substantial emphasis on increasing demand as a means of achieving adequate economic growth.’

The Macroeconomics Underlying the Economic Survey of India 2013-14

This blog post critically evaluates the first two chapters of the Economic Survey of India 2013-14 in order to get a sense of the macroeconomic theory underlying it. [This blog has assessed previous ones for the years:2012-13,2009-10;2010-11;2011-12.] What conceptual framework does the Economic Survey adhere to, implicitly and/or explicitly? This is of significance not just for those interested in theory but also for those who want to understand how economic policies are formulated. Attention will be mainly divided among the following macroeconomic themes: (1) role of investment in economic growth, (2) labour market flexibility and economic growth, (3) policies emanating from (1) and (2), and (4) the overarching aim of economic policy.

I

It is well-known and widely accepted that investment, be it private or public, is necessary for economic growth. By investment, we primarily refer to additions to fixed capital – machinery, tools, storage facilities, transport equipment, etc. Investment in education, health and environment should also be included, for they expand the productive capacity of the economy in the long term. Two questions may be posed now. First, what is the source of investment? Second, what ensures that the growth in productive capacity will be matched by an equivalent growth in demand?

Prior to the path-breaking work of Keynes, it was widely believed that investment is savings constrained and that saving and investment are equilibrated through variations in a sufficiently sensitive interest rate. Keynes convincingly argued that investment is not savings constrained, rather, it is finance constrained. Moreover, he demonstrated that it is activity levels (output and employment) which equilibrate saving and investment, and the causation runs from investment to saving. This is the principle of effective demand, also to be found in the work of the Polish economist Kalecki. The Economic Survey adopts the pre-Keynesian view, which, not surprisingly is still around, embedded in the neoclassical school of economics – the dominant school in economics teaching and publishing. This marginalist idea of saving-investment equilibrium is mirrored by the market equilibrium for ‘capital’ – the demand for and supply of capital is brought into equilibrium by variations in the interest rate; this is nothing but the marginal productivity theory of distribution.

Implicit in the Economic Survey is the pre-Keynesian view, an essential part of neoclassical economics. ‘…higher investment required for raising growth had to come from higher domestic savings…’ (p. 9). However on p. 11, the slowdown in investment growth is attributed to policy uncertainty, sluggish demand and high interest costs. Despite the reference to demand deficiency on the same page (on p. 13, it is acknowledged that an increase in aggregate demand has a positive impact on economic growth), the conclusion on the same page supports ‘structural reforms’ and the elimination of ‘supply-side bottlenecks’. Also, Keynes’s finance-constrained investment view is expressed when the ‘bank credit flow to industry’ is briefly discussed (p. 25); due to sluggish demand, the demand for credit was lower. [See an earlier post on the determinants of investment.]

Income earners make saving decisions (commonly referred to as households or wage earners) whereas it is the firms and entrepreneurs who make investment decisions in a decentralized economy as India. Firms also make use of their retained earnings for purposes of investment (p. 14). The intermediation of saving and investment is carried out via the banking and financial system – the suppliers of credit, so to speak. The point I wish to highlight is this: abundant savings or a low rate of interest is not sufficient for (physical) investment. There should be demand for the commodities and services produced. Also, there are no mechanisms which ensure that supply will create its own demand, famously known as the Say’s Law. At various points, it appears that the architects of the Economic Survey believe in the Say’s Law. In other words, they do believe that a growth in productive capacity will engender an equivalent growth in demand.

Policy uncertainty & investment

Policy uncertainty emanates from ‘difficulties in land acquisition, delayed environmental clearances, infrastructure bottlenecks, problems in coal linkages, ban on mining in selected areas, etc.’ (p. 11; also see p. 33). This particular statement is reflective of a view which does not take common property resources, ecosystems and environmental sustainability seriously and with caution. The uncertainty in policy vanishes when the government is clear, transparent and committed to socio-economic and environmental justice. Policy uncertainty arises from vague, untimely and arbitrary policy decisions. In fact, this approach to securing higher economic growth is inconsistent with the position adopted in the Economic Survey on sustainable development and climate change which, on paper, appears committed to environmental justice and inter-generational equity. And it is such inconsistencies which cause confusion and policy uncertainties for firms wishing to invest in India.

II

The marginalist growth theory (Solow’s growth model being the exemplar) makes use of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Put simply, a growth in the factors of production (or factor endowments) is sufficient for economic growth. And, supply creates its own demand. According to this view, widely taught in macroeconomics courses, growth is supply-side. The impediments to growth then become imperfections in the factor markets, particular labour markets. Consequently, policy is supposed to make labour markets flexible/free/perfect so that the economy can gravitate towards the full-employment position. But, this theoretical view has been shown to be unsatisfactory given the logical problems associated with the marginal productivity theory of distribution. In addition, the creation of a just society must necessarily ensure a minimum wage for all workers sufficient for a decent living, the scope of which ought to widen as societies progress.

According to the Economic Survey, ‘[t]he inflexibility of labour markets have prevented high job creation’ (p. 30). For those brought up in the marginalist tradition, the usual culprit is the labour market. Of course, labour laws, like any other law, should be just and provide opportunities for workers to support each other given that the employers are more powerful than the workers. Also, working conditions, social security, equal opportunity across gender, caste and class and so on must be provided to the workers. This is the responsibility of institution builders – the government together with the civil society. Yes, labour market reforms are necessary: ‘changes in the legal and regulatory environment for factor markets’ (p. 31).

Reforms, unfortunately, have come to possess a single meaning in economics and politics. Reforms have come to refer to policies which make markets more free. There is no reason why reforms need to be thought of in this manner. Politics is about possibilities, and economics suggests some ways of engineering these possibilities in order to provide a decent life to all. There is nothing intrinsically good in any economic or political sense about reforms. The efficacy and goodness of reforms lies in its details.

‘Factor markets such as those for labour, land, and capital, however, remained largely unreformed. This has proved to be a constraint for growth and employment generation’ (p. 48). This statement also is very marginalist or neoclassical in nature. Moreover, one has to be cautious for the three factors of production are very different from one another. Capital refers to produced means of production – commodities and services. Barriers to entry and exit need to be reduced and firms need to operate in a competitive environment. Land is a resource which needs to be treated very carefully and on a case-by-case basis; it has immediate impacts on livelihood as well as on the natural environment. Labour market constitutes people, and there should be strong social security for workers and good working conditions.

III

Policy prescriptions include primarily supply-side measures. This is not surprising owing to the Economic Survey being fundamentally neoclassical. Investment, a component of aggregate demand, is rightly considered crucial. But, public investment is not much favoured. Investment, as noted in section I, will be revived if supply bottlenecks are removed – that is, projects get easily cleared. Policies are targeted at boosting productivity. Provision of physical and social infrastructure is of utmost importance. A market for food (reducing distortionary interventions in agriculture) needs to be created. Manufacturing must be improved.

IV

What is the central aim of these economic policies? Repeatedly, in these two chapters, the objective is to create a ‘well-functioning market economy’ (p. 29; also 26, 46). This is much needed, but the ‘reforms’ need to be socially and environmentally sensitive. Also, just as with reforms, many different configurations of a market economy are possible. This must not be forgotten, and nor should social, economic and environmental justice be overlooked. To conclude, I would add a few words to the first sentence in chapter 2: ‘The defining challenge in India today is that of generating employment and growth’ (p. 29) which is economically, socially and environmentally inclusive. These additional words make all the difference, both in terms of economics and politics.

On Competition in Economic Theory

The assumption of ‘perfect competition’ is central to marginalist (neoclassical) economics. In classical economics, a strand of non-orthodox economics, a seemingly similar but fundamentally different assumption of ‘free competition’ is made. This blog post is about the differences between classical and marginalist economics with respect to their definitions of competition. A further comment relating to the method of economics is also made in connection with this matter in the concluding paragraph.

In marginalist economics, under conditions of ‘perfect competition’, the demand and supplies of commodities and all factors of production are in equilibrium. There is no unemployment of labour or any underutilization of capacity (‘capital’). What are these conditions of ‘perfect competition’? A large number of firms is assumed to exist, each too small to be able to set the price. That is, all firms are price takers and they attempt to maximize their profits. There are no barriers to entry or exit. Further, it is assumed that whatever the firms supply, there always exists sufficient demand. One wonders whether there is any real agency to these price-taking firms and entrepreneurs. When questions are posed in classrooms about their correspondence with reality, the response provided is that such conditions do not actually exist but are a first and a necessary abstraction so as to examine conditions of oligopoly or monopolistic competition. So, what is profit in marginalist economics under ‘perfect competition’? It is the marginal product of ‘capital’, which is zero entailing that profits just cover the interest costs; that is, are no returns to entrepreneurs undertaking risk and uncertainty? Ignoring the capital theoretic problems faced by marginalist economics, underlying this conception is the view that capitalists and workers are (‘justly’) rewarded for their contribution to production.

On the other hand, classical economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, and contemporary economists following the classical tradition, after its revival by Piero Sraffa in 1960, assume ‘free competition’. There is free mobility of labour and ‘capital’. Firms and entrepreneurs are profit maximizers as in marginalist economics. No restrictions are imposed on the number of firms or their ability to set prices. The process of competition – profit-maximizing behaviour plus mobility of factors – tends to make the market prices gravitate towards long-period normal prices and a uniform rate of profit is obtained on the capital advanced. Note that the rate of profit is not zero as in marginalist economics. Alterations in demand and supply affect the market prices. If market prices fall below normal prices, production is not profitable and depending on their permanence the affected firms might exit the industry. Alternatively, production may be cut down because of the lack of adequate demand. Moreover, real wages are determined by wider social and political forces. If real wages are given (and given technology), the rate of profit and the configuration of normal prices are determined. Or, if the rate of profit is determined via the rate of interest set by monetary authorities, the real wage and the set of normal prices are determined. That is, distributive variables are capable of being determined exogenously. This is in stark contrast with the marginalist theory – the marginal productivity theory of distribution, as it is called. Classical economics in contrast to marginalist economics has a logically consistent theory of value and distribution embedded in a framework of competition with realistic conditions. Also, classical economics is able to accommodate institutions, be it collective bargaining or monetary policy, within its framework without any difficulties.

To conclude, besides other logical problems marginalist economics faces, it also possesses a rather restrictive notion of competition. But, does economic theorizing require such an assumption? My answer is in the affirmative. To identify casual chains, however short they might be, an environment of ‘free competition’ must be assumed. With free mobility of labour and ‘capital’ – a genuine conception of a competitive economy, a uniform rate of profit is obtained. But, note that a classical competitive equilibrium does not entail full employment. [Non-competitive elements will generate differential profit rates.] So, should we abandon the study of economic phenomena under ‘free competition’? No, because it conveys to us tendencies in a competitive economy and non-competitive processes are conceptualised as a departure from competitive ones.