Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Aspect: Marx and Keynes on Unemployment (1971)

The Aspect column from the June 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

The first volume of Capital, in which Karl Marx analysed the workings of the capitalist system, was published in 1867. Although Marx’s economic theories were under ceaseless attack by economists who defended capitalism the theories made headway in working class circles, particularly in the prolonged depression of the 1930’s. One of the reasons for the universal interest in Marx in those years was his treatment of unemployment, for he showed how unemployment arises and why it is necessary to capitalism. Then in 1936 John Maynard Keynes’ work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money brought about a twofold shift in the attitude of many economists and politicians. On the one hand they now accepted that unemployment—sometimes of acute and politically dangerous proportions—can arise out of the normal functioning of the capitalist system, but on the other hand they hailed Keynes as the man who they thought had shown them how full employment could be achieved if the right measures were taken by governments. Keynes’ theories were welcomed most of all by the trade unions and the Labour Party because they seemed to offer the prospect that a future Labour government need not be overwhelmed by an “economic blizzard”, as had happened to the Labour government which entered office in 1929 and collapsed under the weight of two million unemployed in 1931.

One of the consequences of the rise of Keynes was of course that working class interest in Marxian theories suffered a sharp decline.

Keynes was given the credit of having demolished the theories of 19th century economists who had taught that, if left to its own devices, capitalism would always and of its own accord tend towards full employment. What was little noticed was that most of the ground covered by him had been treated in detail by Marx three-quarters of a century earlier. Keynes was quite contemptuous of Marx, describing Capital as “an obsolete textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application to the modern world” (A Short View of Russia, 1925) and he never seems to have appreciated that his own criticisms of earlier economists were much like those of Marx.

Among those economists were the Frenchman J.B. Say and the English economists James and John Stuart Mill and David Ricardo. The first of the four is remembered by what is called “Say’s Law”, which was that as people acquire money only to spend it, production and sale will always keep in balance. Keynes in his General Theory wrote:
 Thus Say’s Law, that the aggregate demand price of output as a whole is equal to its aggregate supply price for all volumes of output, is equivalent to the proposition that there is no obstacle to full employment. If, however, this   is not the true law relating the aggregate demand and supply functions, there is a vitally important chapter of economic theory which remains to be written and without which all discussions concerning the volume of aggregate employment are futile.
Keynes also quoted J. S. Mill who, in his Principles of Political Economy, set out to show that no matter how much production is increased the output will always be sold:
  All sellers are inevitably, and by the meaning of the word buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should by the same stroke double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply; everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because everyone would have twice as much to offer in exchange.
Marx had seen this mistake long before. In his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859, he pointed out that Say had in act borrowed his law from James Mill. Marx quoted a passage from James Mill putting exactly the same idea as that borrowed by his son and quoted by Keynes. In Capital Marx wrote:
  Nothing can be more childish than the dogma, that because every sale is a purchase and every purchase a sale, therefore the circulation of commodities necessarily implies an equilibrium of sales and purchases (Kerr edition, p.127).
He showed that “no one is forthwith bound to purchase, because he has just sold”; there can be an interval and if this “split between the sale and the purchase becomes too pronounced” the result is a crisis.

Keynes, like Marx, saw that although capitalists could, in times of depression, invest to expand production they will not do so unless there is prospect of selling the products at an adequate profit. Marx dealt with this reluctance to spend to expand production, under the heading of “hoarding”; Keynes coined the term “liquidity preference”, meaning that the capitalist prefers in that situation to keep his money in cash or its equivalent.

Although Marx and Keynes both saw the fallacy of the early economic theories they reached different conclusions. Marx showed that, under the inducement of competition for the market, capitalist industry is always seeking to reduce costs of production by utilising labour-displacing machinery or other means of securing the same output with less labour, thus creating unemployment; and that capitalism needs “an industrial reserve army” both in order to be able to take advantage of periodical opportunities to expand old industries and develop new ones, and to keep wages down to a level which makes production profitable. For Marx periodical crises are inevitable and equally inevitable is eventual recovery to go through another phase of expansion, boom, crisis and depression.

Keynes challenged this. He maintained that government action can be taken to encourage investment (or to undertake its own investment) and to expand consumption so that recovery from depression can be speeded up and activity maintained at a continuous level of more or less full employment.

The years of relatively low unemployment in this and some other countries since the second world war were held to have proved the validity of Keynes’ argument. This interpretation has, however, been disputed and not only by Marxists. Professor R.C.O. Matthews, for example, argued in the September 1968 issue of the Economic Journal that the major factors have been demand arising out of war-time destruction and an unusually prolonged investment boom, and that positive Keynesian measures have had at most a very minor effect. And the Keynsians have been dismayed by the repeated crises and the gradual long-term increase of unemployment that began in the sixties.

Labour Party supporters who associated their schemes of nationalisation with Keynesian proposals for government action to maintain employment have been particularly disappointed. In the Labour Party Election Programme of 1950 they explained what a Labour government would do:
  Publicly owned industry will be ready to expand its investment when employment policy demands it. The public sector will, by speeding up necessary capital development, help to maintain employment.
But the Labour government’s Nationalisation Acts required the nationalised industries to be run at a profit, like any capitalist industry, and this involved closing down unprofitable coal mines and railways lines.

The Keynsians did not at the outset admit the force of Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s need to keep wages down in order to safeguard profits, but finding in practice that the need exists, Labour governments achieved what they thought was a substitute in the form of wage restraint through an incomes policy.

In face of the realities of capitalism Keynes’ reputation is now greatly diminished, while Marx still provides an unanswerable case for not wasting time – trying to save capitalism.
Edgar Hardcastle

Aspect: Labour Time Vouchers (1971)

The Aspect column from the May 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

A reader has asked us why the Socialist Party of Great Britain speaks of free access to consumer goods in Socialism rather than of the distribution of consumer goods by the labour-time vouchers mentioned by Marx.

The first to suggest the use of labour-time vouchers instead of money was Robert Owen in 1820. The Owenites stood for a society of co-operative communities. Each community would own its own means and instruments of production and each member of a community would work to produce what had been agreed was needed and in return would be issued with a note certifying for how many hours he had worked; he could then use this note to obtain from the community’s stock of consumer goods any product or products which had taken the same number of hours to produce. Owen believed that this co-operative commonwealth could begin to be introduced under capitalism and in the first half of the 1830s some of his followers established “labour bazaars” on a similar principle: workers brought the products of their labour to the bazaar and received in exchange a labour-note which entitled them to take away from the bazaar any item or items which had taken the same time to produce, after taking into account the costs of the raw materials. These bazaars were failures but the idea of labour-time vouchers (or “labour-money”) appeared in substantially similar forms in France with Proudhon and in Germany with Rodbertus and is one source of currency crank theories.

Those who advocate labour-time vouchers can have two different circumstances for their use in mind. Like Robert Owen, they can advocate their use within the context of co-operative ownership and production for use or, like Proudhon, within the context of private ownership and production for sale. Marx exposed as currency cranks those who wanted labour-time vouchers and buying and selling. Where goods are produced for sale, he pointed out, sooner or later one commodity will emerge as the one which can be exchanged for all the others. This special commodity is of course money and its appearance signifies the end of barter. To perform this role of the medium of exchange the commodity must itself have an exchange value. Money is basically a special commodity, a fact which is obscured by the later evolution of money where almost worthless coins and notes have come to circulate as tokens for the money-commodity. Those who advocate the abolition of money and its replacement by labour-time vouchers while retaining production for sale are thus, said Marx, quite confused; wherever there is production for sale one commodity must become money (see his comments in his Critique of Political Economy on the theories of John Gray).

Within the context of common ownership and production for use, however, labour-time vouchers are quite feasible. Then they are not money at all, but merely a method of sharing out consumer goods. As Marx said of the Owenites’ plan for a co-operative commonwealth:
  Owen’s ‘labour-money’, for instance, is no more ‘money’ than a ticket for the theatre. Owen presupposes directly associated labour, a form of production that is entirely inconsistent with the production of commodities. The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his right to a certain portion of the common produce destined for consumption (Capital, Vol &, Moscow, 1961, pp. 94-5).
Engels says much the same in his comments in Anti-Dühring on Owen’s labour-notes.

The German Social Democrats of the 1860s and 1870s inherited the idea of distribution according to labour-time from Rodbertus. They envisaged a system where, with the means of production vested in the community, workers would be given a labour-time voucher entitling them to a share of the social product; thus they would, as Lassalle put it, get “the full product of their labour”. This phrase is confused because, if everything produced in a given period is distributed in full for consumption, then nothing would be left over to renew and expand the means of production or to store in the case of emergency. This point was made by Marx in one of his criticisms of the Gotha Programme which was adopted by the German Social Democrats in 1875 when the followers of Lassalle united with the group with which Marx and Engels had been working. In the course of this criticism Marx made his well-known statement about labour-time vouchers in Socialism (“not as it has developed on its own foundations, but . . . just as it emerges from capitalist society”):
  The individual producer . . . receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another (Selected Works, Vol II, Moscow, 1958, p. 23).
Supporters of state capitalist Russia have used this passage to try to show that Marx thought that  money — and of course gold does function as the money-commodity in Russia — could exist in Socialism. This is so much nonsense since elsewhere Marx specifically stated that labour-time vouchers were not money (see his comments on Owen quoted earlier):
  The producers may . . . receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate (Capital, Vol II, Moscow, 1957, p. 358).
Marx nowhere states that labour-time vouchers were the only method of distributing wealth in Socialism; they were only one possible method. [1]  The actual method adopted would depend on the circumstances (Capital, Vol I, pp. 78-9). Alternatives were suggested, as for instance by Edward Bellamy in his Looking Backward written in 1887. He wanted everybody in Socialism to be issued with a credit card entitling them to obtain an equal amount of consumer goods. In any event, later in his criticism of the Gotha Programme Marx made it quite clear that if labour-time vouchers were used in Socialism this would be a temporary measure imposed by the comparatively low level of technology. In time, he saw, when the “springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly” Socialist society could abandon labour-time vouchers (or whatever) and go over to “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” that is, to free access to consumer goods.

In 1875 the then existing level of technology might well have meant that many consumer goods would unavoidably be available only in limited quantities for some years after the establishment of Socialism. But in the hundred years since, technical progress has made it possible for the springs of co-operative wealth to flow more abundantly than Marx could have foreseen so that free distribution—to each according to his needs—can be implemented almost immediately after Socialism has been established.

Potential abundance has made the idea of labour-time vouchers quite outdated.

[1] Baran and Sweezy are quite wrong when they write in their Monopoly Capital (Penguin, p. 325) that “Marx emphasised in his Critique of the Gotha Programme that the principle of equivalent exchange must survive in a socialist society for a considerable period as a guide to the efficient allocation and utilization of human and material sources”. For Marx there was no “must” about labour-time vouchers (and so more or less “equivalent exchange”); they were just one way of allocating consumer goods before free access could be introduced.