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Understanding the Financial Crisis: Inside “the secret laboratory of the bourgeoisie”

From Triple Crisis by Alejandro Nadal:

Marx is the ultimate critic of capitalism, so what does a Marxian analysis offer when applied to the present global economic and financial crisis?

Two preliminaries are important. First, for Marx crises are not pathologies of capitalism. They are the necessary outcome of the contradictions that define the essence of this mode of production. The backdrop of Marx’s analysis of crises is always class struggle. Second, capital has its own views of crisis and cycles: they are designed to facilitate policy and intervention. These views vary in their degree of accuracy, but in general they do not question capitalism. Marx’s perspective has a different objective: to reveal to the working class the forces that can overthrow capital.

Marx’s theory of crises is disseminated in several key writings. We concentrate our attention on the following: Grundrisse, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Capital, Theories of Surplus Value. It must be remembered that Engels first advanced his theory of overproduction in his Outline of a Critique of Political Economy (1843).

The current global crisis presents itself as a financial crisis, but this can be misleading for our understanding of the nature of the crisis. The fact that the crisis exploded in a segment of the financial sector (i.e., the subprime mortgages) and then was disseminated worldwide should not fool anyone. The US economy had been moving along a very turbulent trajectory since the seventies. Recessions, stagnation with inflation, plus a long string of bubbles had been the trademark of the US economy. These events occurred in the real and financial sectors of the economy. Crucial among them was the stagnation of real wages and the increment of household indebtedness since the seventies.

Important segments of this list form part of the narrative accepted by many heterodox and post-Keynesian economists. But most interpretations stop when it comes to examine the causes behind the stagnation of real wages. Typically the chronicle jumps to how capitalists reacted and launched an offensive to reduce wages, but this simply begs the question of why exactly capitalists felt they had to exacerbate class struggle.

The reply to that question may come in various forms in Marxist analyses, but there is one common denominator. During the sixties, profit rates declined. Various studies confirm this on both sides of the Atlantic: Moseley (here and here), Crotty, Shaikh, Husson, Dumenil and Levy, just to mention a few. An interesting econometric analysis can be found in Basu and Manolakos.

The capitalists’ all out assault to reduce direct and indirect wages was highly successful (and involved trade union busting, outsourcing, offshoring and eventually globalization). As a result, real wages started to stagnate since the seventies. This situation worsened as public expenditures that were important for the reproduction of the labor force were cut and condemned. Increased indebtedness (and a higher debt burden) ensued as wages stopped being the key reference for the reproduction of the proletariat.

Eventually, profit rates recovered. But by the late eighties, the institutions that had supported the previous wage norm (the period of Keynesianism) had been destroyed. Capitalists had been extremely successful and had no interest in restoring those institutions. The degree of their success can be gauged by the magnitude of today’s crisis. In this framework, class struggle sets the stage for indebtedness and plants the seed for the current financial crisis.

The drop in the rate of profit generated pressure for the growth of financial capital. From the perspective of capital, “the process of production appears merely as (…) a necessary evil for the sake of money-making. All nations with a capitalist mode of production are therefore seized periodically by a feverish attempt to make money without the intervention of the process of production”. Not a bad description of what happens today in the turbulent world of financial capital.

Why did the profit rate drop? Here we encounter a strong debate between authors that favor the traditional Marxian explanation in terms of the rising organic composition of capital, and authors who prefer other accounts. In this last group of authors, Robert Brenner explains the downward trend in the profit rate in terms of two factors: employment had enjoyed stability and growing wages since WWII and this reinforced labor’s confidence to demand greater wage increases. At the same time, international competition eroded the productive base of US manufacturing industry and weakened the country’s international trade position. This saw the incubation of another dimension of the crisis of capitalist accumulation. The system that had been the linchpin of postwar international monetary relations started to unravel. In the early seventies, the Bretton Woods system ceased to exist. This inaugurated a new era of exchange rate risks, but also opened vast opportunities for financial gains through arbitraging in foreign exchange markets. Of course, to take advantage of these opportunities, capital account deregulation had to take place.

A Marxist interpretation of the crisis can weave an interest narrative that goes from class struggle inside the secret laboratory of bourgeois production (where the stealthy nature of capitalist exploitation is to be revealed) to the expansion of financial capital, passing through the dynamics of profit rates and investment. Another important element in this story concerns the role of the State and of fiscal expenditure in the reproduction cycle of capital. This helps us understand the implications of the self-destruct nature of the austerity policies implemented today. Theoretical problems in Marxian analysis (notably the so-called transformation problem) should not deter scholarly attention to this rich perspective regarding today’s global financial crisis.

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