Matthijs Krul is a Ph.D. student in Economic History at Brunel University and maintains the blog Notes and Commentaries. C. Derick Varn blogs at The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity.
C.Derick Varn: Do you think value theory is an area of Marxism that is particularly under-explored in relationship to class relations? I am thinking of the development of the so-called “Third World” and how understanding “abstract value” can lead one to make predictions about geo-political relationships in the global South?
Matthijs Krul: Value theory is of course not under-explored in Marxism as a whole. Since the 1980s or so there has been a great revival in Marxist economic theory, especially in exploring the nature and implications of Marx’s value theory. But in relation to class, other than purely in the abstract, is another issue. One important problem with much analysis of class in the modern world is that it is taken for granted, as if class relations are the starting point of the analysis, rather than a subject of analysis themselves from the point of view of Marxist economic theory. There is much ado about the precariat, changes from industrial to service work, and things of that kind, but there is not much interest in the history of the development of classes in the 20th century as tests of Marxist economic theory in themselves, least of all value theory. Here is where so-called Third Worldism comes into its own. In the work of e.g. Emmanuel and Amin, but more so in the work of people like Zak Cope, we find a systematic attempt to understand global economic relations as class relations as well as understanding these class relations as being the working out, in concrete empirical history, of more general and abstract Marxist economic theory. In most radical analysis you have either the former — as in William I. Robinson’s theory of the transnational capitalist class — or the latter, as in for example the debates about the bourgeois revolution or the nature of the USSR. But rarely do you have both.
I am not sure I would speak here of predictions, however — it’s more a matter of explanatory value. Keep in mind economic theory is always more general than the reality analyzed, and so we’re dealing with different levels of empirical application. It’s not pure, abstract modeling as in neoclassical economics, but I would not dare say I can predict how the global class struggle will develop. I think there is an ongoing struggle between the divergent tendencies identified by the ‘Third Worldist’ labor aristocracy thesis on the one hand, and convergent tendencies resulting from shifts in global production and the decline of the Western social-democratic consensus on the other hand. Value theory is an indispensable tool to understanding both of these. Without it we’re stuck either in chauvinist assumptions about the significance of white workers, or in purely distributional arguments for global equality of the kind common in Green and ‘alternate globalization’ movements. But value theory is not much more capable of prediction than any other economic theory.
C.D.V.: Are you familiar with Andrew Kliman’s explanation of the current crisis? If you are, what are the implications for the Global South?
M.K.: Yes, I have followed Kliman’s work quite closely. I gave a very favorable review of his defense of the so-called temporal single-system interpretation (TSSI) in refuting the inconsistency attributed to Marx’s theory of value, and I have been very intrigued by the way in which he consistently opposes ‘fixing’ Marx by applying amalgams of Keynesian and other theories to his work, like is fashionable today. His emphasis on the importance of temporality in making sense of capitalism as a dynamic system, and thereby of value theory itself, is really valuable I think.
For our purposes, I think the most important work is his book The Failure of Capitalist Production. As I understand him, his argument is essentially that neoliberalism has not seen a decrease in workers’ total compensation in favor of corporate profits, as is often alleged (although it has flatlined), and that financialization is not the result of a ballooning profitability. On the contrary, he sees the capitalist system as suffering a secular decline in the rate of profit since the early 1970s, and financialization, speculation and debt, as well as the austerity drives we see today, are attempts at overcoming that inherent barrier to the accumulation of capital. But such methods cannot succeed, because contrary to the ‘left’ Keynesian interpretations, Marx’s value theory indicates that the only way out of a capitalist crisis is by restoring the rate of profit, i.e. by destroying large amounts of (fictitious) value, not, as is done by all Western governments today, by means of bailouts and liquidity drives. Those only kick the can down the road, and make the problem for capitalism worse in the long run, by piling up more debt, generating more unproductive speculation, and thereby pushing the rate of profit down further.
One major consequence of Kliman’s consistent application of Marxist economics is the emphasis on opposing purely distributional responses — all these Marxo-Keynesian attempts to ‘stimulate’ by redistributing wealth, or restoring the welfare state, or calling for nationalizations and public investment works. Instead, as Kliman shows, the contradiction of capital means you have to choose between one of two evils: either ameliorate the crisis now by emergency measures of that kind, and suffer a worse one soon, or ride out the storm, with all the attendant unemployment, immiseration, and unfreedom we have seen in the Great Depression and the Victorian age. Neither option is desirable: that’s exactly why capitalism itself is the problem, and must be overthrown.
In terms of the Global South, this does have some implications. Kliman’s work on the origins of the crisis is statistically limited to the US, although very likely to apply (mutatis mutandis) to the West generally. Worldwide, we have seen a decline in capitalist growth systematically since the 1970s, even despite the new capitalist drives in China, Brazil, and so forth. The poor conditions for investment in the West have driven shifts in production to the Global South, but the longer run effect of this will simply be to equalize this already low rate of profit, and eventually to drive it down even further. This is the inherent tendency of capitalism to do through its expansion of capital and technology, and a ‘Luxemburgian’ solution in the Global South cannot be sustained.
This means, to my mind, that the longer run trend is quite possibly more one of convergence than of divergence. Firstly because the capitalist class is more and more losing their incentive for maintaining the social-democratic ‘historical agreement’ with the labor aristocracy in the West, and is thereby actively destroying the legacy of social-democracy and its basis in sharing the loot of unequal exchange. Secondly because the operation of a global law of value, with a longer run global decline in the rate of profit, will generate similar crisis phenomena in the Global South as it has in the Global North, and in that sense, in a very slow but real way the dissimilarities in social position between the Southern working class and the Northern are being overcome. Keep in mind that for the first time in world history, the majority of the global population is now actually urban workers. If we actively oppose the easy, nostalgic social-democratic and Keynesian answers in the West, and focus on attacking capitalist relations of production themselves and not just questions of the 99% and so forth, we may actually have a better basis for internationalism between the North and South in the long run than it seems at first sight. But that social-democratic nostalgia, whether in its left or its ‘social fascist’ form, is of course popular with Western workers in the shorter run. Kliman gives us powerful economic materials for opposing it, even if that’s not his political intent.
C.D.V.: What do you think is the theoretical error that leads to romanticizing Social Democracy?
M.K.: This is a very big question. If we take social democracy broadly, the idea of the egalitarian, redistributionist state bureaucracy as guarantor of ‘development’, you could say this is the key question to understanding the politics of the 20th century.
I’ll try to be as brief as possible in answering it, and I certainly don’t think I’ve figured this all out yet. But I think there are basically three elements: the first is that there has been throughout the twentieth century a combined pressure (in the historical materialist, causal sense) of the need to develop the productive forces everywhere, a need stated for different reasons by all parties from the left wing to the right wing, and on the other hand the need to complete bourgeois revolution in the Marxist sense, often over and against not just the conservatism of the actual bourgeoisies as a class, but also against Arno Mayer’s “persistence of the old regime.” These pressures have everywhere combined — in national liberation movements, this has taken the form of the rebellion of ‘the people’ of a particular nation or place against their colonial overlords, presented as their own ancien régime. In the Communism of 1917 onwards, it has taken the form of the need to develop the productive forces to achieve the level of productivity and abundance that would allow the switch to socialist production relations — a switch we know has never happened, although one can see the Cultural Revolution in China as an attempt to do so. Within liberalism, not least in mainstream economics, the whole framework of internationalism has been one of ‘development’ and the promotion of a certain kind of liberal egalitarianism for the purposes of combating Communism and political resistance to capitalist relations. A good example of this is The Stages of Economic Growth by Rostow. So the first major force I would identify is this general developmentalism, one that has taken over Marxism as much as it did all the other ideologies. Again, this points to an underlying strong economic causal force operating in and through all this, which I suspect we can identify simply as capitalism’s historical expansion reaching its fulfilment. Marx and Engels certainly thought that capitalism and its bourgeois revolutions had reached their ‘consummation’, to borrow Neil Davidson’s term, by the 1870s or so. But I suspect that they were wrong, and that the 20th century has been the process of this consummation. This also explains its extraordinary violence, which goes entirely contrary to the expectations of the 19th century ‘men of progress’. Social-democracy then appears as the most peaceful and egalitarian-democratic version of this ideal of development, especially for those scared off by the experience of the USSR and so on. But it is profoundly ahistorical to reason in this way: as Claude Bitot has said, in certain ways, Communism has only just begun.
The second force, relating to this, has been the misunderstanding of Marxism as promoting working class rule. It certainly does and should do so in the sense of the rule of the working class in and through the state as a means of simply exercising the physical and political, if you will logistical, power to uproot capitalist relations. That does not happen spontaneously, whatever our anarchist comrades may want. But the ultimate purpose of this can only be the abolition of class society, which is a historical transformation constituting not just a sharp break with capitalism, but with the last 4000 or 5000 years of most parts of the world. It is however very easy, because of capitalism’s own reinforcement of its structures as ‘natural’ (which Marx took so much pains to expose), to end up despite all efforts to take them as such and to promote the working class as an end in itself. This critique of the dominant forms of Marxism in the 20th century is nothing new, of course — many have made it, from Postone to the ‘libertarian communists’. There is a very intriguing, although I think historically exaggerated, essay on this by Gáspár Miklós Tamás called “Telling the Truth About Class”, in which he contrasts the Marxist socialism of overcoming class society tout court with what he calls Rousseauan socialism, which is concerned with egalitarianism, the rule of the people, and the Enlightenment abolition of all artificial restrictions and inequalities imposed by class society without overcoming the social relations that generate them. This creates a kind of ‘compensatory’ socialism: one that is concerned with redistribution, leveling, the evening out of unfair distinctions, and so forth, but not really interested in class society as a historical construct and the role of production in it. I have written about this before: one of the greatest strategic dangers facing Marxist politics today is being led into wanting to simply redistribute and compensate for the effects of capitalism, rather than doing away with capitalism.
The third factor is the most immediate one – people remember the ‘welfare state’ situation of the 1950s-1970s, and especially among the left of the various social-democratic parties there is a lot of nostalgia for that period. It’s an attempt to deny the direction that things are going, and especially for unions it’s pretty hard to face the degree to which their position has been radically undermined, so it becomes tempting to propose this kind of Scandinavian programme as the ideal. It’s a sympathetic idea from a certain egalitarianism, but it has no theoretical basis and is essentially pure demagogy hitched to the wagon of the various Labo(u)r parties.
C.D.V.: Do you think the continued failure of Social Democracy to lunch a counter to neo-liberalism may help break left-liberals out of the malaise here?
M.K.: Well, I think it may. Not so much in the ideological sphere — it tends for now to translate more into attempts at refounding the ‘real’ social-democracy, the creation of various left populist initiatives, and a more general sense of outrage that does not much translate into any concrete political direction. But the decline of social-democracy also means, and is caused by, a decline in the position of the West in terms of its economic hegemony and the living standards of much of the population, and it is that that definitely should clarify things politically in the medium term. A more interesting question in this context is what has been called “the strange non-death of neoliberalism”, i.e., why it persists even through this crisis and does not lose its legitimacy for the ruling classes (and even much of the Western population generally). If the left-liberals want to understand things better, they should ask themselves why this is beyond mere talk of conspiracies of finance or bad faith arguments in the style of Krugman about ‘dogmatism’ and so on. This would also force them to seriously engage with economic theory as it is conceived of by the orthodoxy today, and that intellectual struggle is one that cannot but radicalize people.
C.D.V.: Now, to shift the focus for a moment, do you think this contradiction also plays a role in environmental problems for the “Third World”?
M.K.: That is a good question, and one that perhaps needs more studying (at least by me). There is certainly a problem with a certain tendency in Green politics, mainly as a phenomenon in the First World, that basically decides that after most people here have gotten cars and fridges and plane tickets, it would be unsustainable for anyone else to have them. Rightly, a lot of opposition to Green initiatives in the Third World comes from this sense of it being just another one of the myriad ways in which, to use Ha-Joon Chang’s felicitous phrase, the West has “kicked away the ladder”. On the other hand, the global shift in production has also seen much of the most polluting industry move to Asia and Latin America in particular, and people there are acutely aware of the impact of this. The Green movement has been successful insofar as it has shown that the developmentalist paradigm of the 20th century has itself, in a way Marx would have recognized, conjured up global forces it cannot control. These impact the Third World more than they impact us, in all likelihood, at least if we accept the scientific predictions on this point. Yet at the same time, the same causes of developmentalism, the motives to ‘develop the productive forces’, have not gone away. So a lot of the struggles not just between the position of the relatively super-consuming First World and the poor Third World revolve around this, but much struggle within countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, India and China are also about how to reconcile this productivism or developmentalism with the increasing sense of negative feedback loops in our control over natural forces.
One common left response to this here has been to endorse particular aspects of Green politics — in particular an emphasis on population reduction, on reducing consumption, and on ideas of equilibrium. Originally I was almost Deep Green in my views, and my romantic sympathies still are there. But politically I have become more and more skeptical of this. Some feminist critiques of developmentalist Marxism, like those of the Bielefeld School, have also made some substantive criticisms of the developmentalist ideas about technology and progress, but fall back into a kind of ‘naturalization of the natural’; something that inevitably leads to primitivism and/or conservatism.
It’s worth pointing out that all these ideas were originally part of the intellectual repertoire of Malthusianism, a profoundly anti-socialist thought that Marx and Engels rightly despised. It may well be so that capitalism’s ultimate demise will be caused by an ecological catastrophe, which would be very unfortunate. But it can’t be a question of these dichotomies between Western consumption and Third World lack, or Western ‘recognition’ of nature and Third World obstinacy (or the reverse), or any of these things. We need to develop ideas of Marxism that contain the fundamental critique of technology and production under capitalism that is its greatest strength, but also contain political ways of making that work against the divergence between First and Third World on this front. The science is real enough, but Malthusianism need not be the answer. Green thoughts are just as much part of the class struggle, both globally and within countries, as any other philosophy. Moving forward from developmentalism without falling into primitivism — that will be a challenge, and one I don’t yet have an answer to.
C.D.V.: Why do you think that primitivism has been so much more a temptation in the developed world?
M.K.: I’m not entirely sure if that is true. It has certainly been theorized most in the developed world, but there are also figures like Vandana Shiva, and a lot of groups in India, Latin America and elsewhere resist developmentalist impositions in language which is (partially) about maintaining their organic, traditional relations and so forth. Of course, it’s a sliding scale — primitivism proper is a very extreme position only held by the likes of Zerzan, whereas various forms of romantic conservatism or reaction are much more common. I do think that in the Third World there is at the same time necessarily an enormous awareness of the debilitating effects of poverty and lack of ‘development’, since this is an everyday experience there in a way it’s not here. That makes it much harder to be full of middle class urban anxieties of the Green variety and/or of the romantic kind (ones which, as mentioned, I instinctively share). But there’s also a lot of awareness of how development itself has led to new forms of exploitation and alienation, and has often destroyed old relations without providing any new social bonds that can sustain social life – a familiar topic for much postcolonial literature, for one.
This is sometimes quite literally true, when the very effects of developmentalism can lead to severe socio-economic dislocations, inducing famine and disease and actually reducing life expectancy. The plague of HIV in southern Africa, for one, is an example of this. So I think that this contradiction, the impossibility of both romantic reaction as well as a pure productivism, shows itself ad oculos in much of the Global South in a way it does not in our part of the world. But our own struggles over the needs of highly urban, high-consuming populations versus the desire to maintain some degree of ecodiversity and of open space, for example, are milder versions of the same conflict.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent Time magazine article about the return to Marx?
M.K.: A surprisingly intellectual article for something as generally braindead as Time magazine, that’s for sure. These ‘the return of Marx’ things are very common — The Economist publishes one every few years, I think. Most of the time they don’t amount to anything as they’ll just be some concession to vapid chatter about ‘inequality’ and how Marx was wrong about everything substantial but ‘has a lot to say about how capitalism works’. This Time article is more intriguing because it actually cited Marxist (or Marxisant) thinkers at length, e.g. Richard Wolff and Jacques Rancière. Still, for most of the liberal and social-democratic media, Marxism just appears as their bad conscience. You get people like Lord Desai or the Dalai Lama calling themselves Marxists. I don’t make too much of that. Generally my attitude towards any of the mainstream political chatter (whether theory or middlebrow TV ‘debates’), just like with the mainstream popular economics, is one of unrelenting hostility and separation.
C.D.V.: What do you make of Richard Wolff’s particular economic proposals?
M.K.: I am not hugely familiar with Wolff’s work, other than the book he and Stephen Resnick wrote on class in the USSR, which is an odd melange of empirical economics and poststructuralist thought. My impression from what I have seen on him is that his interpretations of the crisis and the development of the profit rate are not as compelling as Kliman’s; it strikes me his viewpoint is more akin to most Marxist economic articles, in that they hew close to underconsumptionism. The strength of Kliman’s view over those like this is precisely that Kliman’s view sees the crisis as a failure of capitalism itself. He does not imply, like most left theorists still do (from Krugman to Wolff), that if only the ruling class had more sense and made the right distributive decisions, there need not be a crisis impact at all.
Crisis in ancient Greek means something like ‘decision’ or the power to make decisions; I think we need to go back to that not just political, but also theoretical rejection of capitalism. There is certainly room for reforms and transitional demands as a matter of politics, but there is no economic way to make capitalism work for the majority. On the other hand though, Wolff also often remarks that opposing austerity and ‘policy mistakes’ is not enough, but we need to confront the system that generates them. So I probably just don’t know his work well enough. Given he seems to be successful at the moment as one of the popularizers of Marxist economics through blogs and podcasts (a great development in my view!), I should look into it more.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
M.K.: Well, I hope the interview will stimulate some useful discussion. I’m definitely open to input from people on many of these issues. I think in terms of theory there’s much potential still for Marxist research — new consensuses are developing that are much more promising than the old, and the end of the Cold War mentalities and the rediscovery of Marxist economic theory give a wide room for further debates and ideas. I don’t think ‘late capitalism’ is more than rhetoric, capitalism will take another century or so to collapse. But it is a great time to be a Marxist, and a great time for a unified social science.