Home > economics, political-economy > Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part seven)

Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part seven)

In part one of this series, I showed how inflation affects not only consumption but also production. In the former, inflation expresses itself in the fall of the consumption power of the mass of society. In the latter, inflation expresses itself as a fall in the actual realized rate of profit — a negative rate of profit arising not from a material change in the composition of capital, but from a depreciation in the purchasing power of money. The two of these effects are achieved by one and the same cause. The two effects do not simply exist side by side, but influence each other: in the circulation of capital, excess money-demand effectively reduces the portion of the output of productively employed capital that is realized in sales. With an inflation rate of ten percent, a capital with value of $100 now can be realized only if $110 is offered for it. On the other hand, a capital with the actual value of $110, is effectively purchased for $100.

The problem here is that between the production of the commodity and its realization in a sale the purchasing power of the money has depreciated. The problem can be better understood if we divide value and price and examine each separately. If we assume a capital with the value of $100, represents 10 hours of socially necessary labor time, we can make the following observation: The capitalist takes his capital with a value of $100 or ten hours of labor time and produces a quantity of commodities with a new total value of $110, representing 11 hours of socially necessary labor time. However, during this same period, the purchasing power of money has changed so that 1 hour of labor time no longer has a price of $10, but has a new price of $11. His capital now has the value of 11 hours of labor time with an implied expected price of $121 (11 times 11 = 121), yet he only realizes $110, or 10 hours of labor time under the new price conditions.

From the point of view of value, the capitalist has taken his capital with a value of 10 hours of socially necessary labor and produced a capital with a value of 11 hours of socially necessary labor. Yet, of this 11 hours of value he only realizes 10 hours, i.e., he realizes no more than his original investment. From the point of view of price, the capitalist has taken his capital with a money-price of $100 and produced a capital with a money-price of $110. He expects no more than $110 and is satisfied with this, despite the fact that this $110 in sales only has a value of 10 hours of socially necessary labor time.

The riddle of the divergence of prices from values

The riddle of this perverse situation can only be solved if we assume that a change occurred in the relationship between values and prices during the exchange of money and commodities — that the realization of the value of capital produced suffered from a defect such that a portion of the value this capital was lost in the act of exchange itself. This defect, as we showed in part three, is already inherent in the value/price mechanism itself. The value/price mechanism contains in itself a contradiction between the actual labor time expended on the production of a commodity and the socially necessary labor time required for its production; a contradiction between the value of the commodity itself and the expression of the value in the form of the price of the commodity; and, a contradiction between the price of the commodity denominated in units of the money and the socially necessary labor time required for the production of the object that serves as the money.

These contradictions exists only in latent form until crises bring them to the surface in a sudden divergence between prices and values of commodities. During periods of over-production of commodities — or, more accurately, over-accumulation of capital — these crises are expressed in the sudden collapse in the prices of commodities below their value, or socially necessary labor times. The divergence between prices and values of commodities only express the fact that for a more or less lengthy period of time wealth can no longer accumulate in its capitalistic form; and, as a result, the socially necessary labor time of society must contract to some point where the production of surplus value no longer takes place. Precisely because the circulation of capital requires not just the production of surplus value in the form of commodities, but also its realization in a separate act of sale of these commodities, the possibility exists for an interruption of the process of realization for a longer or shorter period of time until balance between production and consumption is restored — that is, until conditions exist for the total social capital to once again function as capital; for the process of self-expansion of the total social capital to resume.

If, for whatever reason, conditions are not established for the total social capital to resume functioning as capital — for the process of self-expansion of the total social capital to begin again — production itself must cease. The interruption of exchange — which, I note for the record, begins not with too much money-demand for too few commodities, but precisely the reverse — creates a sudden fall in the rate of profit to zero. If this occurs not as an intermittent breakdown, but as a permanent feature of capitalist production — which is to say, if the over-accumulation of capital is not momentary, but a now permanent feature of the mode of production — capital has encountered its absolute limit as a mode of production. From this point forward the production of wealth can no longer take its capitalistic form — can no longer take the form of surplus value and of profit.

Over-accumulation of capital and civil society

Moreover, since the production of surplus value is the absolute condition for the purchase and sale of labor power, the sudden interruption of its production affects not just the capitalist class, but the class of laborers as well — it appears in the form of a social catastrophe threatening the existence of the whole of existing society, and all the classes composing existing society without regard to their respective place in the social division of labor. Each member of society encounters the exact same circumstance: she cannot sell her commodity, whether this commodity is an ordinary one — shoes, groceries, etc. — or the quintessential capitalist commodity, labor power. The premise of all productive activity in society is that this activity can only be undertaken if it yields a profit; if, in other words, the existing socially necessary labor time expended by society realizes, in addition to this value, additional socially necessary labor time above that consumed during its production.

Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 that capitalist production presupposes a tendency toward the absolute development of the productive forces of society, irrespective of the consequences implied by this development for capital itself. What does Marx mean by this? As a mode of production, capital shares with all previous modes of production the feature of being founded on natural scarcity, on the insufficiency of means to satisfy human need. Yet, at the same time, it implies a tendency for the productive capacity of society to develop more rapidly than consumption power of society — a tendency for more commodities to be thrown on the market at any given time than society can consume under the given conditions of exchange. What society can consume at any given moment is not determined simply by the amount of commodities available to be consumed, but by class conflict between the mass of owners of capital and the mass of laborers; a conflict which presupposes the reduction of the consumption power of the mass of laborers to some definite limit consistent with the realization of profits.

That this conflict, absent a successful attempt on the part of the mass of society to end the monopoly over the means of production by an insignificant handful of predators, must be settled in favor of capital and, therefore, that production is constantly kneecapped by  completely artificial limits on consumption, is already given by capitalist relations of production themselves — relations which nowhere figure in the description of capital by simple-minded economists, who instead ascribe this barrier to the gold standard, etc.

This contradiction — that the productive power of society tends toward its absolute development, yet the consumption power is constantly constrained by the need to produce commodities at a profit — implies that at a certain point in capital’s development production and consumption come into absolute conflict — a conflict which, on the one hand, cannot be resolved by simply increasing this productive power still further, nor by limiting consumption still more severely. It can only be overcome by such means as overthrow capitalist relations entirely, or, alternately, destroy both the productive and consumption power of society together in one and the same act of exchange.

Exchange and disaccumulation, or, the destruction of value through exchange

I have made the assumption that both the productive power of society and the consumption power of society are destroyed by one and the same act of exchange. Based on this assertion, I define inflation not simply as the increase in money-demand over the supply of commodities, but the actual destruction of the productive power of society and consumption power of society during the act of exchange. Or, what is the same thing, by the progressive reduction of the total social capital circulating within society, i.e., the reduction of the quantity of the existing total social capital which continues to function as capital within society, through exchange.

I have also made the assumption that this same act of exchange also expresses,

  1. the contradiction between the actual labor time expended on production of commodities and the socially necessary labor time required for production of these commodities — inflation, therefore, expresses itself as a declining portion of the total labor time expended by society that is socially necessary, or, alternately, the constant increase in the total labor time of society in relation to the social necessity for productively expended labor time;
  2. the contradiction between values of commodities and the expression of these values in the prices of commodities — inflation, therefore, is expressed as a decline in the value of commodities as a proportion of the prices of commodities, or, alternately, the constant increase in the prices of commodities in relation to their values; and,
  3. the contradiction between the prices of commodities denominated in units of the legally defined money and the price of the commodity that historically served as the money — inflation, therefore, is expressed in the constant depreciation of the exchange ratio of the money token against the commodity historically serving as the standard of price, or, alternately, as the rising price of the commodity historically serving as the standard of prices denominated in the money token, i.e., a secular rise in the price of gold.*

The conditions of this act of exchange, which destroys both the productive power of society and its consumption power — and which, on this basis, progressively reduces the quantity of the existing total social capital which continues to circulates as capital and function as capital on this basis — is fulfilled only by exchange of that portion of the newly created social capital representing surplus value with ex nihilo money, and the unproductive consumption of this newly created value by the Fascist State. Moreover, this unproductive consumption of the newly created surplus value is only fulfilled if it is entirely unproductive in all of its forms, i.e., whether this unproductive consumption takes the form of the unproductive consumption of commodities, of labor power, or, of the fixed and circulating capital.

Fascist State expenditures consist entirely of removing the surplus product of labor from circulation, consuming it unproductively, and replacing this surplus product in circulation with a valueless ex nihilo money that formally completes the act of exchange, but that in reality abrogates it. The total mass of capital circulating within society is thereby reduced by this exchange, while the total money-demand in society is simultaneously increased.

The chief symptoms of inflation, therefore, is (1.) the unproductive consumption of the existing total capital by the Fascist State, no matter what form this unproductive consumption takes; (2.) the constant secular increase in Fascist State expenditures, no matter how these expenditures are financed, but which is no more than the continuous exchange of every form of commodity (i.e., of capital in the form of commodities) for newly created valueless ex nihilo money; and, finally, (3.) the constant expansion of the total labor time of society beyond that duration required by the satisfaction of human needs. In tandem with the improvement in the productivity of labor, society is compelled to expend an ever greater amount of effort just to feed, house and clothe itself. In tandem with the reduction in the value of commodities, the prices of commodities soar still higher. In tandem with relentless expansion of Fascist State expenditures, the actual provision of necessary public services — education, health care, provision for the disabled and those no longer able to work, public infrastructure and communications — sink into decay and obsolescence.

The terminal trajectory of capitalist social relations is expressed precisely in the fact that at a certain stage of development the total social capital can no longer function as capital, can no longer realize the constantly increasing quantity of surplus value produced in the form of profits, that, to the contrary, this surplus value must be unproductively consumed in its entirety by the Fascist State and replaced by purely fictitious profits denominated in a purely fictitious money.

*****

*NOTE: I need clarify from Part Three that this third contradiction implies gold tends to exchange with other commodities at some exchange ratio below its relative value, despite its rising nominal price. As is obvious, if commodities are priced above their values, the purchasing power of gold — the physical body of exchange value — is exchanged below its value. This situation, which once occurred only during periods of general capitalist expansion, is now a permanent feature of exchange. It is, however, expressed through the intermediary of the money token by commodities being priced above their values, while gold is priced below its value. An existing quantity of money token can buy fewer commodities, but more gold, than otherwise expected. This inevitably leads to charges by gold-bugs that the price of gold is being deliberately suppressed, but I think it is actually a natural consequence of over-accumulation of capital — a condition normally seen at the apex of an expansion. Commodities in general are devalued, but this devaluation is expressed most thoroughly in the devaluation of the former money commodity which serves little other function in society but to express value.

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