From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
How Capitalism Works (2): No Profit, No Production
The Law of Profits
The law of profits says that each enterprise strives to make the maximum amount of profits, and that each state strives to have the maximum amount of profits made by enterprises operating within its frontiers.
An enterprise can only be said to "make" profits in the sense of acquiring through exchange more money than it originally had. The real origin of profits, however, lies elsewhere. As profits are the monetary expression of the surplus wealth produced over and above that consumed by the class of wage earners, they are produced in the first instance by human being applying energy to change nature. So the total amount of profits that can be made by all enterprises is limited by the total amount of this surplus wealth that has been produced. In fact the most convenient ways of understanding profits is to see all the surplus wealth produced as first converted into money and then pooled: and to see all enterprises competing with each other to draw from this pool the largest amount of profits they can. If this competition between enterprises were completely unrestricted then each enterprise would tend to make the same rate of profit: the amount of profits made by each enterprise would in other words, be directly related to the size of its capital. Price would then equal cost of production plus a margin equal to the average rate of profit.
This is what does tend to happen, but is complicated by the fact that competition is not unrestricted due to the various monopolistic practices adopted by enterprises, and particularly States, in order to try to increase their share of profits. The competitive struggle for profits is not just a struggle between enterprises selling the same product, but a struggle involving every enterprise irrespective of the particular products they are trying to sell. The more profits one enterprise makes the less are left for the others. Like the law of wages, the law of profits is the outcome of the activities of people: in this case of those in charge of enterprises as they try to make profits.
For enterprises to make profits the price at which they succeed in selling their products must be higher than the cost of producing them. But price is not something enterprises can control at will. The amount of money those who want some product are prepared to spend on buying it constitutes the market for that product, while its market-price is determined by its supply in relation to the market demand for it. Generally speaking, the larger the supply the lower the price. In order for enterprises to make profits from satisfying a particular market, therefore, the total output of ail the enterprises producing for that market must be restricted to the level at which the interaction of the supply and the demand will result in a price high enough, not only to cover costs of production, but also to allow a margin for profits.
Where there are no monopolistic practices, this restriction is not the result of agreement between the enterprises involved, but comes about through ail enterprises seeking to make at least the average rate of profit. If the profit margin is less than average in a particular industry, then some of the enterprises will either stop producing for that particular market or will go out of business altogether. In either case output (supply) will fall and prices rise. If, on the other hand, profits margins are higher than average then new enterprises will be attracted: output will rise and prices fall. The stable situation, under these conditions, is where output is at the level where the selling price equals cost of production plus the average rate of profit.
Where elements of monopoly are present prices will be higher and the output probably lower than this. Few pure monopolies — where only one enterprise supplies the market — exist, but monopolistic practices of one kind or another (from cartels to informal collusion over prices) are fairly widespread. They allow prices to be raised above cost of production plus average profit and so for monopoly profits to be made. These profits are made at the expense of enterprises which supply other markets in that they reduce the pool of profits and so also the average rate of profit.
There is a further, technical restriction on the averaging of the rate of profit. Modern large-scale industry is such that it is not possible for a new enterprise to enter an industry as soon as the profits there become higher than average. This works the other way too. Enterprises cannot withdraw quickly if profits fall below average. Indeed they may even continue producing at a loss for a period just to cover fixed costs until the market, prices and profit margins recover. In the long run. however, a high or low rate of profit will be reflected in a permanent rise or fall in output. For enterprises make their decisions about the amount of wealth they will allocate to expanding the productive capacity of the workplaces they control in die light of such long run profit trends. In this way market conditions equally influence decisions about the size of the stock of means of production as they do about the level of current production.
So enterprises respond to market conditions by adjusting output to prices and then by adjusting productive capacity to output. Normally they will not produce articles, nor build factories to produce articles, for which they believe there to be no profitable market. The general rule which governs the production of wealth today is "no profit, no production".
The reason, for instance, why millions of people are starving in the world today is quite simply because they have no money to buy the food they need and hence do not constitute a market. Again, the reason an abundance of high-quality consumer goods — good food, clothes, household goods, cars — is not produced today is because the market demand for consumer goods is restricted by the amount of money the operation of the wages system puts into the pockets of wage and salary earners. In an exchange economy wealth is produced to meet not what people need, but only what they can pay for.
THE LIMITS OF STATE ACTION
The law of profits says that States (insofar as they are not profit-seeking enterprises themselves) aim to have the largest possible amount of profits made by enterprises from within their frontiers. States can use their power to help home enterprises in two ways: to find and protect markets and to keep costs down. They can, for instance, impose taxes on goods entering from outside their frontiers in order to protect home enterprises from foreign competition. They can by diplomatic and if necessary military means, seek to acquire protected foreign markets for the home enterprises and, on the cost side too, they can bargain and use force to acquire sources of cheap raw materials for home industry. (These are reasons why the competitive struggle for profits can be said to be the cause of modern wars). Also on the cost side, they can throw their weight behind the enterprises in their struggle with wage-earners over the size of the wage packet or salary cheque.
The need to keep the costs of home enterprises down is the great restriction on the freedom of action of States in the economic field. Any money the State spends must come in the end out of the profits of enterprises. In the case of taxation this is obvious, with taxes on wages and the products wage-earners buy being passed on to the enterprises as higher money wages. If the State tries to obtain more money by using the printing press, it will cause the currency to depreciate and prices to rise. Rising prices at home mean, in relation to the world market, rising costs so that the profits of exporting enterprises and of enterprises facing foreign competition in the home market will be reduced. In other words, these enterprises will in effect be paying for the State's inflation-financed spending out of their profits.
The consumption of the wage-earners is part of the cost of production and cannot rise without threatening profits. This is why no action by the State can bring any lasting improvement in the living standards of wage-earners. Generally speaking, however, most States make no attempt to disguise that their policy is to keep wage costs down. In this sense governments of States have learned to be realistic and that there are certain limits to what they can do in the economic field. In formulating, whether willingly or reluctantly, their policies in the light of the facts of economic life Stales act as a mechanism through which the laws of the world exchange economy are transmitted to those who make decisions about the production and allocation of wealth.
The internal structure of a State, like that of an enterprise, is irrelevant in this respect. A democratic State where the government is elected by a majority of wage and salary earners still has to pursue policies in the interest of the profit seeking enterprises within its frontiers. On the other hand, not even the most ruthless dictatorship can overcome the laws of the world market. Indeed, dictatorships have generally come into being precisely in response to pressures from the operation of the world exchange economy on a particular State.
Artificial scarcity, for that is what the restrictions the world exchange economy places on the production of wealth amount to, is not the only consequence of the production-for-exchange associated with the class monopoly of the means of production. A further consequence is that much of the work that is done is wasted from the point of view of rationally satisfying human needs, as will be examined in the next two articles in this series.