Friday, June 18, 2010

n 1: On Your Marx

We are all Marxists now -- which is to say, we are all keen observers of the failure of capitalism and free markets in the age of peak oil, government bailouts, and corporate incompetence:
Marxists differ in the details of their accounts of the postwar economy, but the story, which ends for now in the cliffhanger of the first contraction of the world economy since 1945, goes something like this: The so-called Golden Age of postwar capitalism from 1950–70—a time of rising wages, profits, and investment—was the product of special and perishable circumstances. The wartime destruction of the Japanese and German productive base meant that, with the resumption of peace and renewed growth in demand for non-military goods, all the major industrial economies could for a time thrive without threat to one another. But the maturation of European and Japanese industry toward the end of the ’60s spelled the return of mutually destructive competition. Firms producing internationally tradable goods (cars, electronics, et cetera) could only survive by reducing prices, which in turn reduced profitability. And yet the capital sunk in manufacturing plants was enough to make capitalists reluctant to exit a given product line in spite of reduced profitability. Besides, governments don’t like to see big firms fail even when they can’t compete. (The Obama administration has lately proved almost as indulgent of GM as the state-directed Japanese banks have always been of Japanese industry.) And the more recent advent of China as a manufacturing power only exacerbated the situation, as the Chinese (to quote Brenner) “continued to expand capacity faster than it could be scrapped system-wide and to rain down torrents of redundant, increasingly high-tech goods upon the world market.”

The orthodox story blames declining profitability (and price inflation) during the ’70s on the excessive demands of labor—a plausible enough explanation until you consider that the worldwide defeat of labor since the ’80s has failed to restore prior levels of growth. The high wages of the early ’70s are long gone. What has endured and intensified since then is a systemic bias in favor of short-term financial speculation over longer-term productive investment.