After reading and commenting on David Graeber’s post at the Guardian, I feel it necessary to comment more broadly on the problem the euro-zone faces in the crisis, as well as the problem posed by the austerity regime being pursued by the member nation of the European Union. My point is to show that the errors of the bourgeois economists Reinhart and Rogoff are not, as is commonly believed, a simple math or spreadsheet error. Behind these errors is concealed the fact that the euro-zone itself is founded on a fundamental structural flaw resulting from the monetarist economic theory on which it is constructed. This flaw was nothing more than an attempt to obstruct the working class majorities of the member nations from democratic control over their economies — a flaw that is now haunting the euro-zone and will likely cause its collapse.
Based on what I have described of Bernanke’s policy failure so far, is it possible to predict anything about the future results of an open ended purchase of financial assets under QE3? I think so, and I share why in this last part of this series.
I stopped my examination of Bernanke’s approach to this crisis and the problem of deflation after looking at his 1991 paper and his speech in 2002. I now want to return to that series, examining two of his speeches this to discuss the problems confronting bourgeois monetary policy in the crisis that began in 2007-8.
The world market had been shaken by a series of financial crises, and the economy of Japan had fallen into a persistent deflationary state, When Ben Bernanke gave his 2002 speech before the National Economists Club, “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. Bernanke was going to explain to his audience filled with some of the most important economists in the nation why, despite the empirical data to the contrary, the US was not going to end up like Japan.
So I am spending a week or so trying to understand Ben Bernanke’s approach to this crisis based on three sources from his works.
In this part, the source is an essay published in 1991: “The Gold Standard, Deflation, and Financial Crisis in the Great Depression: An International Comparison”. In this 1991 paper, Bernanke tries to explain the causes of the Great Depression employing the “quantity theory of money” fallacy. So we get a chance to see this argument in an historical perspective and compare it with a real time application of Marx’s argument on the causes of capitalist crisis as understood by Henryk Grossman in his work, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown.
In the second part, the source is Bernanke’s 2002 speech before the National Economists Club: “Deflation: Making Sure “It” Doesn’t Happen Here”. In this 2002 speech, Bernanke is directly addressing the real time threat of deflation produced by the 2001 onset of the present depression. So we get to compare it with the argument made by Robert Kurz in his 1995 essay, “The Apotheosis of Money”.
In part three, the source will be Bernanke’s recent speech before the International Monetary Fund meeting in Tokyo, Japan earlier this month, “U.S. Monetary Policy and International Implications”, in which Bernanke looks back on several years of managing global capitalism through the period beginning with the financial crisis, and tries to explain his results.
To provide historical context for my examination, I am assuming Bernanke’s discussion generally coincides with the period beginning with capitalist breakdown in the 1930s until its final collapse (hopefully) in the not too distant future. We are, therefore, looking at the period of capitalism decline and collapse through the ideas of an academic. Which is to say we get the chance to see how deflation appears in the eyes of someone who sees capitalist relations of production, “in a purely economic way — i.e., from the bourgeois point of view, within the limitations of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself…”
This perspective is necessary, because the analysis Bernanke brings to this discussion exhibits all the signs of fundamental misapprehension of the way capitalism works — a quite astonishing conclusion given that he is tasked presently with managing the monetary policy of a global empire.
The constant expansion of the Fascist State presupposes the constant expansion of capital which can no longer function as capital, which can no longer employ labor power for purposes of the self-expansion of capital; which, in other words, seeks its self-expansion, not by augmenting the productive capacity of society but by exploiting the wholesale destruction of this productive capacity through fictitious profits.
Of superfluous labor, Moishe Postone writes:
It should be clear that “superfluous” is not an unhistorical category of judgment developed from a position purportedly outside of society. It is, rather, an immanent critical category that is rooted in the growing contradiction between the potential of the developed forces of production and their existent social form. From this point of view, one can distinguish labor time necessary for capitalism from that which would be necessary for society were it not for capitalism. As my discussion of Marx’s analysis has indicated, this distinction refers not only to the quantity of socially necessary labor but also to the nature of social necessity itself. That is, it points not only toward a possible large reduction in total labor time but also toward the possible overcoming of the abstract forms of social compulsion constituted by the value form of social mediation. Understood in these terms, “superfluous” is the historically generated, immediate opposite of “necessary,” a category of contradiction that expresses the growing historical possibility of distinguishing society from its capitalist form, and, hence, of separating out their previous necessary connection. The basic contradiction of capitalism, in its unfolding, allows for the judgment of the older form and the imagination of a newer one. My analysis of the dialectic of transformation and reconstitution has shown that, according to Marx, historical necessity cannot, in and of itself, give rise to freedom. The nature of capitalist development, however, is such that it can and does give rise to its immediate opposite—historical nonnecessity—which, in turn, allows for the determinate historical negation of capitalism. This possibility can only be realized, according to Marx, if people appropriate what had been constituted historically as capital.
Although Capital is founded on scarcity, it nevertheless has a tendency toward the absolute development of the productive forces — toward, in other words, realization of abundance. But, the development of the productive forces occurs wholly within the limits of scarcity — a limit against which Capital constantly strains yet is continually thrown back by its own inherent contradictions. The productive forces develop to a staggering extent — as can be seen in American agriculture where the labor of 0.6% of the population suffices to feed the remaining 99.4%, yet, hunger persists, and grows; prices continually inflate; and the war on the consumption power of society extends even to routinized crop destruction by using it for fuel.
Capital’s problem is not how to abolish hunger and want, but how to dispose of massive quantities of output without abolishing hunger and want. The productive forces have grown to such scale that truly insignificant quantities of labor can produce astounding quantities of output. The question posed to political-economy — to “economic policy makers” — is how to maintain profitability by destroying this abundance. Capital’s tendency to absolutely develop the productive forces comes down to a tendency toward absolute expansion of the Fascist State.
The law of the tendency toward a falling rate of profit not only presupposes export of capital, it presupposes export is absolutely insufficient. It presupposes the export of capital only intensifies the absolute over-accumulation of capital. Thus, alongside the export of capital, the Fascist State grows and must grow at an accelerated rate. Or, put in terms that might be understood by the Modern Monetary Theorist:
“Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” —Dick Cheney
What matters isn’t the completely fictional accumulation of public debts but that ever increasing quantities of excess capital is destroyed. The expansion of the Fascist State and the destruction of capital is, for this reason, only two sides of the same process. It is the annihilation of value in the perverse form that socially necessary labor time shrinks, even as labor time grows absolutely. This requires not simply the destruction of new surplus value but also the devaluation of the existing variable and constant capital.
The perversity of the requirement: All of this destruction of value and surplus value must be profitable for Capital. Thus Capital in its necessary form must be replaced by Capital in its purely superfluous form. This, of course, is impossible: Capital is value, and value is socially necessary labor time alone. Hence, superfluous Capital is not Capital at all, but merely accumulated superfluous labor time operating as if it is necessary labor time. The logic of the Fascist State is, for this reason, I think, identical with the logic of Capital itself, but with a profoundly different aim. If, for whatever reason, society is unable or unwilling to reduce its hours of labor, the Fascist State is the necessary result. It is the necessity for a reduction of hours of labor expressed in the perverse form of an increasingly intolerable Fascist State.
Thus, the Fascist State is only a symptom of the absolute nature of the contradictions at the heart of capitalist relations of production under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, and as a consequence of a general failure on the part of society to liberate itself from labor — a consequence of society’s failure to reduce the social hours of labor, and thus bring its activity under its conscious control. It is the accumulation of entirely unnecessary labor, superfluous labor, performed by society, in the form of a grotesquely overgrown, and constantly expanding, State power.
That the diminishing application of living labor to production results, and must result, in the extension of hours of superfluous labor in the form of the Fascist State explains why the rise of this state occurs simultaneously with the withdrawal of gold money from circulation as legal money in the United States in 1933, and the subsequent end of the dollar peg to a specific quantity of gold in 1971. The claim by economists like Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer that the Great Depression was caused by the restriction on the supply of money imposed by the gold standard is a crock, an admission that Capital, if it is to continue to dominate society under conditions of absolute over-accumulation, requires the decoupling of money from the commodity serving as measure of value and standard of price — that prices must no longer be constrained to express only the socially necessary labor time embodied in commodities generally, and, specifically, in labor power, the capitalist commodity par excellence, the commodity without which capital cannot become capital, cannot expand its value.
The subsequent explosion of the price of gold, and prices generally, gave evidence of the extent to which the magnitude of the existing quantity of capital in circulation denominated in the legally established gold standard dollar had diverged from its actual value — the extent to which the magnitude of this capital denominated in pre-1971 dollars had already diverged from its actual magnitude denominated in so many billions of ounces of gold. The replacement of money by ex nihilo pecuniam — by money created out of thin air — did not itself lead to inflation, to the depreciation of the purchasing power of money, but only expressed the growing divergence between the shrinking socially necessary labor time of society and the ever expanding total labor time of society. This divergence presupposes the growing divergence between the value of commodities and their prices: even as the value of commodities shrink, the prices of these same commodities increase. The sum of prices must constantly increase in proportion as the sum of values fall. It is not the increase in the supply of money that leads to the increase in prices of commodities, but the increase in the total hours of social labor in proportion to the socially necessary labor time of society that requires both the increase in the supply of money and the increasing prices of commodities.
The stupidity of liberals and progressives, and the mass of Marxists theorists following them, is that they imagine the Fascist State by directly employing the labor power of society can overcome the inherent tendency toward the formation of a surplus population of workers. What they always overlook in their fascination with this fascist idea is that value is socially necessary labor time — the duration of labor time during which the worker reproduces the value of her own wages. The Fascist State, however, is composed of the surplus of labor time over this quantity of hours. It follows from this that even if the mass of unemployed is provided jobs by Fascist State spending, the new sum of wages including the increase in wages by this additional employment is, and must be, offset by the further contraction in the value of individual wages; that the new sum of wages amount to no more, or even less, than the value of the sum of wages before the unemployed are given public jobs. The average daily wage decreases in value as the mass of employed workers increase. The impoverishment of the individual worker is thereby accelerated; but in this case it is not owing to improvements in the productivity of labor, but owing to the sharing of the meager quantity of means of consumption — to which the workers are limited by Capital itself — among a larger number of hungry mouths.
A vicious circle is thus created: Capital creates surplus value by limiting the consumption of the worker. This surplus value, however, must then be unproductively consumed in its entirety by the Fascist State to maintain the conditions under which it was created, i.e., to maintain the limited consumption of the worker. The new value, having been consumed by the Fascist State, is replaced in circulation by ex nihilo pecuniam having no value whatsoever; and, which only devalues the existing employed variable and constant capital — or, what is the same thing, inflates the prices of the commodities composing both variable and constant capital. Finally, the purely monetary devaluation of the variable and constant capital increases the pressure on Capital to increase the rate of surplus value in order to maintain and increase the mass of surplus value, i.e., to further increase the productivity of labor by reducing still further the consumption of the mass of society.
This has political consequences to which I turn next.
But, I think, although I am entirely prepared to be convinced otherwise, the contrast between self-ownership and the earlier forms of property, can also allow us to understand why the argument of such scholars as Justice Antonin Scalia regarding the intent of the authors of the founding documents has such appeal to a large section of the population: it is precisely in those founding documents that the ideal of self-ownership is contrasted directly with the practice of slavery by the authors. Thomas Jefferson’s brutal, savage, and barbaric acts in the real world place the ideal of self-ownership in its sharpest possible relief. We adore the words penned by Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he was a slave-owner, but also because he was a slave-owner. Precisely because we can no longer be disposed of by others in the fashion of a slave on Monticello without our consent and an agreed upon remuneration, our own self-enslavement appears to us as the ideal form of freedom to the member of the Tea Party, and not as what it is: the freedom to consent to our own enslavement. For the progressive, it is an acknowledgment by Thomas Jefferson that, should he wish to employ Sally Hemming as before, he will have to pay her at least the minimum wage, deduct the proper amount of Social Security and other taxes, and observe OSHA regulations.
If proponents of self-ownership could confuse it with the expression of natural law within human society, this was only because, in relation to all other forms of property up to that time, it was more perfectly compatible with the new relations between members of society being established by the new economic forces than these older property forms, and only to the extent it was more compatible with these new relations. That we find it necessary to reassert our self-ownership against the existing state of society implies not a conflict with these older forms of property that are no longer compatible with the development of the economic forces of society, but a demand for the abolition of self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves, and, with it, every form of property.
This statement does not mean that the assertion of self-ownership, as a revolution against previous forms of property (insofar as we consider all of these the disposal by others over our individual labor powers) was not valid — only that it was limited by its very nature. Our individual labor power, which can be understood much as described by Murray Rothbard that, “…each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish…”, are not, and have never been, capacities existing apart from us in the form of some object external to us: they are who we are as individuals. When the bourgeois revolution against the old order demanded self-ownership, it was demanding the overthrow of the previously existing state of affairs wherein our human self, including these very capacities, were treated as the property of some feudal potentate.
However, never in any previous form of society was it possible to think of our individual capacities as something distinct from us; never did any feudal chief imagine that the capacities of his subjects existed apart from, and independent of, their physical self; never did Thomas Jefferson imagine that his ownership of slaves extended only to their sex organs, or their capacity as beasts in the field, or as a pair of hands in the kitchen. Nor did these slaves ever imagine that, apart from submitting to his periodic rape, or the time he demanded of them as draught animals, that they were otherwise free human beings.
This division between the individual and her capacities — in which her capacities not only can assume an independent object-like existence, but must assume this form — is also a thoroughly modern invention. And, it was not until this self-object — which Marx calls the “labor-power” of the individual, or, in its totality, “the productive forces of society” — emerged as the fundamental form of property in society, that the capacities of individuals were able to assume an independent existence standing apart from them, and, over against them as an independent social force with a life of its own.
Based on this argument Marx makes the startling assertion not that self-ownership must be replaced by state ownership of the individual — as was the case in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China — but that NO ONE controls these relations nor can anyone achieve control of these relations. The problem posed by self-ownership as a form of property is not the emergence of the State as a social Thomas Jefferson, but that with it human relations generally escape all control by society. Marx writes, “Never, in any earlier period, have the productive forces taken on a form so indifferent to the intercourse of individuals as individuals…”
Despite the demands by both Tea Partiers and progressives for the state to assume control over these human relations — and much to the chagrin of those like President Barack Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke — no individual or group of individuals, no State or group of States, acting separately or in concert, can impose their control over the relations between human beings precisely because they exist in the form of the individual capacities of each of us in an objectified form.
These relations, Marx declares, can only be controlled by any of us, if they are controlled by all of us together and in a voluntary association which abolishes self-ownership as a form of property in ourselves:
It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown…
In order, Marx writes, not only to gain control over these relations — which are never at any point anything but our own collective capacities existing in the form of an independent social force standing over against us — but also merely to ensure our actual physical survival as living creatures, society will be compelled to establish a voluntary association, and make this voluntary association the exclusive mode of its activity.