love, blood, life
Join Date: Dec 2004
Local Time: 04:05 PM
The cyclical character of capitalism-why boom and bust is unavoidable in capitalism
The Capitalist Crisis
The capitalist economic system is a system of periodic interrupted reproduction of wealth. The interruption has a cyclical character. It is this disturbance that is known as the economic crisis or depression. Constant and variable capital invested is significantly reduced. There follows a significant decline in the scale of the reproduction of wealth and thereby the consumption of wealth by humanity. The result is increased poverty.
Capitalist crises tend to have an inherently periodic character entailing the indefinite sequential expansion and contraction of the reproduction of capital. The capitalist economic cycle involves sequential phases that regularly repeat themselves. This is the necessary and contradictory form by which capitalism regulates itself indefinitely. It is a form of regulation that is inherently unstable tending to generate political crises, wars and social revolution. Consequently capitalism’s sustained existence of capitalism cannot be guaranteed.
Crises have a unique form peculiar to capitalist society. Under capitalism the material destruction of the elements of production occur not as the cause but as the result of crisis. It is not because there are fewer workers engaged in production that a crisis breaks out. Instead fewer workers are engaged in production as a result of the break-out of a crisis. What appears to be the case is not the case. Reality is reversed. A capitalist crisis is a crisis of overproduction of exchange-values in the form of capital. On the market commodities fail to find buyers thereby rendering them unsaleable. Full employment is the exception rather than the rule under capitalism. At best full employment tends to have a cyclical character. Capitalist crises are general and have a global character.
The intrinsic contradiction of the commodity, the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value, is externalised in the form of the splitting of the commodity into the commodity itself and money. The split creates the general possibility of capitalist crises. This contradiction means that to appropriate use-values one has to be able to buy them. To buy or sell one has to be a buyer or seller. Individuals exist, then, in the form of a buyer or a seller. They need only exist in this narrow abstract form. Power resides in one’s existence in the context of the constraining narrow abstract forms of buyer or seller. The consumption form plays a role in determining the character of the working class and the capitalist class. In this way individuals are reified as the personifications of buying, selling and consumption. Consequently success is circumscribed by the constraints of the narrow forms of buyer, seller and consumer. The worker as seller of labour power is only conceived from within that narrow form. This is why s/he is so summarily disregarded by the ruling class. His/her more humanist nature is thereby precluded, except marginally, from conceptions based on this socio-economic. One’s commercial value or status is significant not one's kindness, say, towards others. Consequently one is celebrated as a musician or artist because of one’s commercial success but not for one’s virtuosity and creativity. Since the worker’s existence is exclusively grounded on this constrained form, seller of labour power, his existence concerning every aspect of his being is conditioned by this narrow reified form. In past societies this was not necessarily the basis of economy. The separation between the commodity and its money equivalent facilitates the emergence of the systems of trade, credit and eventually capitalism. Accordingly these systems of reification conditioned the development of social being in such a way that they indelibly inscribe themselves on existing human conduct.
The Process of Circulation of Capital
The existence of circulation and thereby circulation time means that there is a time interval between sale and purchase or selling and buying. Circulation or the process of exchange rather than ensuring that every sale matches every purchase excludes any guarantee of the existence of such a condition. Circulation renders Say’s Law (supply creates its own demand) impossible. It prevents any guarantee that sales must match every purchase. In short there is an element of inevitable contingency featuring in the exchange process. It is this peculiar reification of human relations (circulation) that creates these conditions --the possibility of crises.
The circulation process is an inherently contradictory process. It is the necessary social form, albeit reified, by which commodities are distributed. It never guarantees that this distribution and realisation of exchange values will take place. There is, as intimated, an element of contingency entailed in this process of reification. It is a contradiction that entails the existence of both necessity and contingency. This means the process of reproduction of both exchange value and thereby wealth can never be guaranteed under capitalism. This renders the general process of reproduction itself contingent. It is subject to chance even perhaps permeated by chance. Consequently the future can never be predicted with any certainty or accuracy. This being so capitalism can never be depended upon to reproduce wealth or to reproduce the present and thereby the future. This is why it must be dispensed with. The capitalist circulation process is both a combination of necessity and contingency. Without chance there can be no novelty, change nor development. However with chance there is the danger of the opposite occurring -loss.
Many agents active on behalf of the bourgeoisie in times of crisis are forever endeavouring to enhance or improve the circulation system. They hope to render the circulation process more rational and streamlined in such a way that as a mode of realisation and distribution it cannot hinder the flow of commodities and capital through the system. But this illusion entertained by these ideologues indicates their inability to comprehend the nature of capitalism and its circulation process in particular. They are under the illusion that it is the task to restructure the circulation process in such a way that Say’s Law can freely assert itself and thereby create economic freedom. Depending on their political allegiances some are of the view that circulation needs to be cleaned out by eliminating “the debris” (such as oversized banks and excessive regulation) fouling up the circulation sphere. For them the problem is the lack of authentically free markets. For them markets are over-regulated. On the other side the circulation process or the market is too free. It needs much more regulation and interventionism to guarantee that it operates harmoniously serving the interests of the public.
But both sides effectively support the market, in one way or another, believing it to be a necessary social form. This means that both sides support capitalism. But today’s massive over-accumulation of debt is evidence that market relations (the circulation process), in whatever form, cannot form a central part of the solution. Neither can they see that the core problem lies much deeper --deep within the production process itself. The source of the problem is the contradictory capitalist process of production. This process either has to be abolished (communism) or periodically transformed under the freely operating industrial cycle.
In contrast vulgar economics argued that the total value of commodities is equal to the total incomes of the various classes of society. From this it is concluded that the total production of commodities is at the same time the production of the incomes needed to absorb these commodities. Hence arose the law of markets called Say's Law. This law excludes the possibility of general overproduction. At most it allows for the existence of partial overproduction, overproduction in some sectors alongside underproduction in others. This, it is claimed, is caused by the unbalanced distribution of the "factors of production" within the economy. The mistake of the law of the markets arises from neglect of the time-factor. It assumes a static system instead of a dynamic one.
During intervals between sale and purchase the prices of commodities can vary, in either direction, thereby creating a surplus of incomes or a surplus of commodities without the corresponding change in the money form on the market. Furthermore the incomes distributed during a certain period of time will not necessarily be used to buy commodities during this period. Only the incomes of wage-earners tend to be immediately and entirely spent. Capitalists are under no obligation to invest all these exchange- values immediately thereby using them as purchasing power to acquire goods. With falling profitability many capitalists tend to postpone such expenditure. The hoarding of incomes, non-productive saving, may thus give rise to a surplus of income which corresponds to an overproduction of certain commodities. This, in turn, brings about an initial reduction in employment which may lead to overproduction spreading throughout other parts of the economy leading to a further decline in employment. In this way the vicious spiral progresses.
Disturbances may arise from the injection of money into the circulation process. Within the production process fixed capital is gradually written off over a number of years and then all at once replaced by the expenditure of the accumulated depreciation funds. In a smoothly working system, the annual fixed capital replacements are equal to the annual depreciation allowances. If the age-composition of existing machinery is unequal or if business conditions suggest a speeding up or postponement of renewals, orders for replacements will exceed depreciation allowances in some years and fall short of them in others years. This discontinuity in the expenditure of depreciation allowances for capital replacements disturbs the smooth course of the circulation process. This is responsible for fluctuations in employment and thereby profit. The accumulation of depreciation funds is a sale without a purchase, as is any saving, while any investment is a purchase without sale.
Indeed interruptions, delays in sale or purchase, are the necessary contradictory nature of the circulation process. This form is a necessary condition for the realisation of capital accumulation. Consequently circulation is both a form of motion and non-motion.
Say’s Law would only tend to hold under conditions resembling universal simple commodity production. However such an economic system is an impossibility. A society exclusively producing mere use-values, not values, cannot create overproduction. Increases in the organic composition of capital leading to a consequent downward tendency of the general rate of profit form the general laws of development of the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist mode of production thus acquires its characteristic rhythm of development. This rhythm proceeds in the form of cyclical contractions and expansions.
During the crisis phase the commodity split into itself and money is stretched to the utmost leading inevitably to slump. The long-term tendency of the general rate of profit to fall does not assert itself in a linear form. Instead it asserts itself in a fluctuating form The stages of a classical cyclic model of capitalism are as follows:
Under conditions of the over-production of capital under-utilisation of existing production capacity leads to stock elimination. Consequently the demand for goods tends to exceed supply. Prices and profits eventually start to rise again. Some factories (probably under new ownership) which have been closed open again. Others operating below capacity eventually increase their operations to full capacity. This encourages capitalists to increase investments. This is because, when demand exceeds supply, less social labour is crystallised in commodities present than socially necessary. This implies that the total value of these goods easily finds its universal equivalent on the market. The factories operating at higher productivity levels, higher than the average, realise super-profits. Less productive enterprises, still surviving after the crisis, realise the average (normal) profit. The circulation time of commodities is reduced. Gaps between selling and buying grow increasingly shorter.
The orders for equipment from the consumer goods sector make possible recovery in several capital goods sectors. Recovery reduces unemployment and increases purchasing power which stimulates a new wave of investment.
Capital goods production is much less elastic than that of consumer goods. When recovery is well underway an interval appears between the order for additional constant capital and its delivery. During the interval there is a relatively big demand within Department Two for the commodities from Department One that are already available on the market. The prices of these goods will rise faster than the prices of consumer goods. This produces different rates of profit in the two sectors. The disproportion in the two sectors is shifted to prices and profit. Wages tend not to rise at the beginning of recovery owing to pressure from the industrial reserve army of the unemployed on the labour market. Factories not working to full capacity re-engage workers without any plant change. This tends to lead to a lowering of the organic composition of capital thereby increasing the rate of profit.
The expansion of production is slow at first. The demand for constant capital in the form of new plant and technology remains at a level lower that the supply which implies that the rate of interest remains very low. The coincidence of a low rate of interest with a rising rate of entrepreneurial profit leads to a general tendency by entrepreneurs to renew fixed capital. Investment in new plant cannot be generally undertaken incrementally. Assuming a constant rate of increase in output an individual firm cannot alter its fixed capital at a parallel constant rate.
Much of the available capital flows into production in order to take advantage of the increase in the average rate of profit. Investments rapidly increase. New enterprises are set up and old ones modernised. The newly launched enterprises raise the average level of productivity. So long as supply is exceeded by demand prices continue to rise and the average rate of profit remains high. The most modern enterprises realise substantial super-profits which stimulate fresh investment and develop credit, speculation etc.
The disequilibrium between rates of profit in the two sectors is now transformed into a disproportion between the rate of increase of their production. The capital goods sector experiences a burst of frenzied activity. It causes an increase in demand for consumer goods and even leads to shortages. Given that demand exceeds supply prices are higher so that the more productive firms earn super-profits. The rate of interest begins to rise. Eventually profit is maximised and aggregate effective demand is met. The cycle reaches its first critical point. One would expect falling demand to lead to a corresponding contraction in production. Such rationalism is impossible because of the inherent contradictory nature of capitalism. We see here how capitalism’s character obstructs the development of rationalism. In fact its anarchic nature promotes irrationalism. This helps explain why irrationalist ideology and religion is still prevalent.
A contraction of production leads to an increase in depreciation charges thereby raising costs. Capitalists try to overcome this problem by intensifying the use of the production apparatus and increasing the intensity of labour. An increase in the mass of surplus value is needed to offset the lowering of the general rate of profit. This implies increased productivity by means of technological progress.
Capitalists cannot know when equilibrium has been reached. Complications such as the publicly unaccountable existence of hidden inventories in the hands of speculators thwart access to such knowledge. Over and above all this, although not unrelated to it, markets don’t feel the effects of maximum productivity until months after that stage has been reached. Production therefore continues to increase. Due to credit expansion this goes on even longer. But ultimately there is a limit to credit expansion. Then banks stop lending money.
Put simply overproduction of capital and thereby commodities is not felt by the markets until months after that stage has been reached. Production persists even after the stage of overproduction has been reached. Credit relations accentuate this situation. Retailers and the firms in intermediate stages of production have to replenish stocks exhausted due to the depression. Sales increases encourage industrialists to undertake further production which may coincide with stagnation or even slight shrinkage of ultimate consumption. Even when final consumption has been reached factories continue to produce and retailers continue to stock up
As more and more commodities are hurled onto the market the relations between supply and demand change. Some of the commodities produced under the least favourable productivity conditions contain labour time which is wasted from the social standpoint. These commodities have become unsaleable at prevailing prices of production. Thanks to the expansion of the credit system these unproductive factories go on producing for a certain period. This is reflected in the accumulation of stocks, the lengthening of the circulation time of commodities and the widening of the gap between supply and demand. At a certain moment it becomes impossible to bridge the gap with credit. Prices and profits collapse. Many capitalists are ruined and the enterprises that work at too low a level of productivity are crowded out.
The disequilibrium between Department One, the capital goods sector, and Department Two, the consumer goods sector, first shows itself in the sphere of prices and the rate of profit thus spreads more and more into the spheres of production. The total amount of purchasing power for consumers' goods does not increase any further or at least very little. But production still continues to increase. Stocks first grow at the final stage (retail trade) then at the wholesale stage and finally in the industrial enterprises themselves. As this increase in stocks grows the entrepreneurs resist any immediate price falls which would mean a lowering in total stock value --a serious loss. Circulation credit is increasingly sought from banks. The banks themselves would have already extended substantially to enterprises in this sector. They put off as long as possible any credit refusal. This is because this would bring about the bankruptcy of these enterprises and so the entire loss of the capital already advanced in loan form. In the case of Ireland the fact that the banks were forced to stop lending to businesses meant that they lost much of the money capital lent to them. This increased the losses of the bank and thereby created the situation they sought to avoid. This leads to credit inflation leading to speculation and swindling. This tension on the money market and the finance market comes just before the reversal of the conjuncture and is marked by a sharp rise in interest rates.
Now obliged to put off their investment projects many enterprises use this capital to meet added circulation costs. (Some may even create hedge funds to conceal their debts so that their enterprises continue to appear to operate at profit ). The orders for capital goods thus increasingly fall. Production starts falling off in the consumer industry. The capital goods sector follows it in a vicious downward spiral.
The rhythm of production in the capital goods sector is governed by the expansion and contraction of production in the consumer goods sector. The capital sector uses borrowed money much more than the consumer sector. This is because of the higher rate of profit in this heavy industry sector. Rises in interest rates hits them harder. Emptying of their order books means falling consumer demand and rising stocks and falling profits due to rising wages and costs.
Demand for circulation credit accumulates. But the supply of money capital declines because the difference between the rate of profit and interest increasingly disappears. Enterprises short on money capital draw out their bank deposits and sell off their property, securities, shares and bonds. This brings about falls on the stock exchange and other financial markets. A snowball effect sets in. The massive burgeoning of derivatives, especially devices such as credit derivatives more than add to this problem. Banks refuse credit leading to increased bankruptcies debtors dragging down creditors. Soon an avalanche sets in. Investors are forced to sell stock at any price. This is the cyclical character of the capitalist economy.
The fall in prices means that only the enterprises working under the most favourable conditions of productivity survive. Firms with super-profits now have to be satisfied with average rates of profit. A lower level of average profit is attained. This corresponds to the new organic composition of capital. The bankruptcy and closure of many factories means large-scale destruction of machinery and thereby fixed capital. The total capital of society is reduced through the devalorisation and destruction of capital. This smaller amount of capital is now more profitable than the previous amount of capital. Indeed it was the previous oversized capital that was the cause of the crisis.
The cyclical movement of capital is thus nothing but the mechanism through which the general rate of profit asserts itself. The latter regulates the reproduction of capital and thereby its development and decline. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall forces the adaptation of the amount of labour which is socially necessary, the individual value of commodities, to their socially determined value. Because capitalist production is not a consciously planned and organised process these adjustments take place a posteriori. For this reason the regulatory process necessitate violent shocks involving the destruction of enormous quantities of values and created wealth. Over and above all this it causes damage and destruction of thousands of lives.
It takes time for stocks to be disposed of which means there is no change in unemployment. Many firms have had to use funds normally made use of for the renewal of fixed capital for other purposes. Consequently the activity of enterprises in the capital goods sector is much reduced. The consumer goods sector does not decline as much as the capital goods sector. Even the unemployed have to eat. Perishable goods cannot be put off to another time. Workers’ wages don’t fall as much as the fall in prices which helps keep up the sale of perishable goods. The demand for semi-durable goods does not collapse as much as those of durable consumer goods. Yet durable consumer goods sell more easily than capital goods. In the depression the disproportion between the two sectors will spread to the sphere of prices and profits.
The Return Of Economic Recovery
While the depression lasts industrial activity remains at an abnormally low level. However it never absolutely collapses. There is always some industrial activity. When the rate of profit is very low no reduction in the rate of interest will make any difference to a revival of investment. But the very logic of the stagnation creates the elements of recovery. The contradiction of capitalist stagnation contains the conditions of recovery, As stocks are disposed of thanks to the collapse in production the consumer sector is able to slightly increase its activity. The prices of these goods find a floor that tends to steady things. It is enough for these enterprises to remain stable for a certain period for these enterprises to start re-equipping. Everything encourages this. The price of raw materials and means of equipment are very low.
Funds at first hoarded make their way back to the banks. There is a reduction in the demand for money capital because of the absence of investment activity which is why interest rates are low. The low rate of profit which produces recession compels enterprises to introduce new methods of production. Costs of production falls make possible an increase in the profit rate. Investment thereby begins in the consumer goods sector.