The Socialist Party Debates: The Tendency For The Rate Of Profit To Fall Vs Underconsumptionism.
The VOAG can’t help but notice the growing debate inside the Socialist Party (SP). The VOAG’s inbox had just quietened down following an avalanche of emails during the recent SWP splits. Now it seems it’s the Socialist Party’s turn to spam the living daylights out of us all.
The VOAG has already heard rumours of people being banned from the Socialist Party’s International Summer School, now I understand the SP’s NC is removing members from the SP Facebook group and banning all discussion relating to Marxist economics. (1)
As Bruce Wallace, one of the leading dissidents put it: “Under the pretext of agreeing to comradely debate, the critical material of oppositionists is being censored and repressed while public attacks on us are made by the leadership”. How SWP. (2)
And just like the SWP debacle, the argument is being conflated with a general dissatisfaction with internal party democracy. One dissident quotes Lenin: “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free, not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited”
What’s it all about.
At the root of the argument are different perspectives regarding the relative importance in Crisis Theory (why capitalism goes into cyclical recessions) of “The Tendancy For The Rate Of Profit To Fall” (TRPF) and “Overacculation /Underconsumption”. Another SP dissident, calling himself Crucial Steve, writes on his blog:
“According to Lyn Walsh [editor of the SP’s monthly Socialism Today], the current crisis is one of over accumulation and lack of demand. Peter Taaffe writes in issue number 157 “The capitalists refuse to invest because there is no ‘profitable outlet’. In this sense, it is a crisis of ‘profitability’. Not because profits have dropped or there is a ‘tendency’ for the rate of profit to decline. Both the rate and the absolute amount of profit have increased it seems, even during this terrible crisis”.” (3)
Crucial Steve (Steve Dobbs) counters: “Marx was very clear that the accumulation of capital and the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall were in fact “two expressions of the same process”. As capital accumulates, the organic composition [fixed capital over variable capital] rises and the rate of profit tends to fall. Thus to speak of over accumulation without reference to the rate of profit is somewhat “one-sided”, shall we say.
Cde. Crucial sets out his stall: “According to the statistics, the rate and the absolute amount of profit have not increased as the SP would have it. As anyone who has worked with management in the private sector will tell you, capitalists are concerned with the rate of return. So naturally, the projected rate of profit will determine investment. A fall in return and a subsequent fall in investment can also lead to a drop in the mass of profits. We can see empirically that the fall in the mass of profits precedes a fall in investment prior to a recession”.
Crucial quotes Walsh in Socialism Today No.161: “How, as socialists, should we regard a stimulus package or programme of public works? In the face of mass unemployment and the prospect of prolonged economic stagnation, the leaders of workers’ organisations should indeed be calling for a massive programme of public works to provide jobs and stimulate growth. Effective economic stimulus would require a big increase in social spending, increasing pensions and other benefits. Tax rates for the wealthy and big corporations should be substantially increased, with a levy on the uninvested cash piles of big companies. Effective measures should be taken against tax evasion and avoidance”. (4)
The SP’s official position, that the current crisis is one of over accumulation and lack of demand, implies that the answer is to inflate the economy by increasing salaries and public spending, in order to spend ones way out of crises. In other words, classic Keynesianism. We at The VOAG reject this approach and agree with Marx, that capitalism has structural contradictions that cannot be resolved by keynesian economics or reformism.
Socialist Fight breaks it down.
To get some help understanding this argument, let’s visit the pages of this month’s Socialist Fight:
Let us first of all set out the proposition according to Marx: “The progressive tendency of the general rate of profit to fall is, therefore, just an expression peculiar to the capitalist mode of production of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour. This does not mean to say that the rate of profit may not fall temporarily for other reasons. But proceeding from the nature of the capitalist mode of production, it is thereby proved a logical necessity that in its development the general average rate of surplus-value must express itself in a falling general rate of profit. Since the mass of the employed living labour is continually on the decline as compared to the mass of materialised labour set in motion by it, i.e., to the productively consumed means of production, it follows that the portion of living labour, unpaid and congealed in surplus-value, must also be continually on the decrease compared to the amount of value represented by the invested total capital. Since the ratio of the mass of surplus-value to the value of the invested total capital forms the rate of profit, this rate must constantly fall”. Karl Marx, Capital vol. 3, chapter 13.
TFRP is the central plank of Marx’s revolutionary economic theories. He formed his theory in opposition to the closely related theories of the so-called “iron law of wages” and underconsumptionism, and sharply counter-posed TFRP to them. The Iron Law of Wages is a proposed law of economics that asserts that real wages always tend, in the long run, toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker. Karl Marx attribute the doctrine to Lassalle (notably in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875), but credited the idea to Thomas Malthus in his work, An Essay on the Principle of Population.
Marx did not have several theories of capitalist crisis, he had one: TFRP. Marx attacked the “iron law of wages” in two lectures to the international Working Men’s Association in 1865. The argument was that the “iron law” meant the absolute immiseration of the working class which led to a lack of demand for commodities and hence a crisis pushing prices below the value of commodities finally squeezing profits.
This is closely allied to underconsumptionism. Of course it has an immediate reformist implication; there is a Keynesian solution to the crisis of capitalism. All we need to do is raise wages and pump more money into the economy and the crisis will be solved. The underconsumptionist tells us there is plenty of money available but the capitalists just won’t invest. So implicitly all we have to do is force them to do so or get the government to do so on their behalf. It is this reformist conclusion that Bruce Wallace has correctly identified in the line of both the CWI and the CPGB. The notion that they won’t invest because the rate of profit is too low is beyond them.
The point about TFRP is that it is a revolutionary theory; capitalism is in crisis because it has these fatal structural flaws; private ownership of the means of production and a system of production for individual profit which has this inescapable tendency to fall and halt production through lack of investment. Only a rationally planned socialised economy based on production for need will overcome the ever recurring [and increasing] crises of capitalism. War on a global scale is the only thing that will temporarily solve this crisis for the capitalists; a much smaller group of monopoly capitalists will now have their profits rates restored before they fall again and the next conflagration is prepared. That is the history of the twentieth century. The same iron laws apply to the twenty-first. (6)
Acknowledgements and Thanks
Many thanks to Ray Rising for providing a selection of print-outs regarding the Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall.
The VOAG would like to acknowledge Socialist Fight for their article “Ticktin, Taaffe and Underconsumption” in Socialist Fight No.14 some of which is reproduced here.
Thanks also go out to Socialist Fight for their excellent Open Meeting on the “Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall” which The VOAG attended. For details of future Socialist Fight meetings contact: Socialist_Fight@yahoo.co.uk.