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Cat Brain at Work: How Chris Harman explains the “Marxist theory of stagnation”

April 6, 2012 Leave a comment

As part of my continuing occupation of the Marxist Academy, I have been looking at various Marxist theories of the crisis of neoliberalism. I am now reading the late Chris Harman’s “The rate of profit and the world today”, written in 2007, just prior to the big crash. This is part two of my examination.

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Before we go any further, let me reiterate one thing: In Marx’s theory, the law of the falling rate of profit is not expressed in “stagnation of economic growth” directly or indirectly. The so-called “stagnation thesis” appears no where in the body of Karl Marx’s works on the capitalist mode of production spanning more than 40 years. Nor does it appear in any of Frederick Engels works on the same subject spanning nearly fifty-five years. It is not even an indirect result of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. Moreover, in addition to the idea of “stagnation“, no Marxist can point to a single reference in the collective body of work by these two writers — together amounting to a century of research and publication — where either the terms “financialization” or “globalization” appear.

So, why the fuck are Marxist academics trying to explain these nonexistent phenomena? I think the answer to that question is simple: they are trying to explain stagnation, financialization and globalization because they can’t explain this:

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Chasing Unicorns: Chris Harman and the “Marxist theory of stagnation”

April 4, 2012 2 comments

"Friesian Unicorn" by Katrina Lasky

As part of my continuing occupation of the Marxist Academy, I have been looking at various Marxist theories of the crisis of neoliberalism. I am now reading the late Chris Harman’s “The rate of profit and the world today”, written in 2007, just prior to the big crash.

*****

Harman appears to be one of a group of the influential Marxist thinkers in the last quarter of the 20th Century, and especially the period leading to this crisis, who helped refocus Marxist academic attention to Marx’s rate of profit theory. In this paper, to some extent an outline of his book, published in 2009, on the same topic in the middle of the crash, Harman presents the result of his research on the rate of profit and offers some ideas to explain his findings.

In Harman’s view Marx’s argument that the rate of profit falls over the life of capitalism has far reaching implications because it argues capitalist crises result, not from some sort of failure in the mode of production, but from its successes:

The very success of capitalism at accumulating leads to problems for further accumulation. Crisis is the inevitable outcome, as capitalists in key sections of the economy no longer have a rate of profit sufficient to cover their investments. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.

For some reason Harman does not follow up on this very interesting argument — if in fact capitalism’s crises are not a sign of failure but a sign of success, this indicates capitalist crises themselves should not be the focus of attention when studying the mode of production.

Crises are no more than a interval during which the mode of production resolves the contradictions produced by its previous successes. As such, these crises cannot be the reason why Marx labeled the mode of production a relative, historically limited, form of development. While the recurrent crises of increasing scale demand our attention because they momentarily bring economic activity to a near standstill these crises in no way are the source of processes leading Marx to his conclusion regarding the fate of the mode of production.

The conclusion resulting from this realization are pretty staggering: for all of its social consequences, the depression of 2001 is not the harbinger of the demise of capitalism, but an interval during which the mode of production prepares for its further expansion. This may explain why Marxists, when looking at the recurrent explosions of capitalism, see no reason why they cannot continue indefinitely.

They are looking at the wrong thing.

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