2017’s best books on capital/ism

Posted: January 18, 2018 by Admin in Books, capitalist crisis, Economics, Limits of capitalism, Marxism

Joseph Choonara’s A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital

by Michael Roberts

In 2016 we had some seminal and important books on Marxist economics including: Anwar Shaikh’s lifetime compilation, Capitalism: competition, conflict and crises (that I dip into on a regular basis); Fred Moseley’s Money and Totality, a masterful defence of Marx’s value theory; Francois Chesnais’ Finance Capital Today, that recounts the current trends in modern finance; as well as major contributions from Tony Norfield (ttps://www.versobooks.com/books/2457-the-city,) and John Smith (Imperialism in the 21st century).

It’s difficult to compete with these in 2017.  However, this year commemorated 150 years since Marx published Volume One of Capital, so there were a few important books that everybody should get.

In my view, Joseph Choonara’s A Readers Guide to Capital was the clearest and concise of all the various ‘readers’ or video lectures that are available or were published this year.  Choonara takes the reader through each chapter of Volume One with some clarifying analysis and relevant comment to help.  Choonara says that “It is designed to be read in parallel with Capital itself, with each chapter of this book consulted either before or after digesting the relevant sections of Marx’s work.”  The aim, unlike that of Harvey’s more comprehensive approach in his video lectures, is “instead to dwell on those areas that are the most vital to an overall understanding of the work and those that most often confuse, drawing on my own experience teaching Capital to left-wing audiences of students and workers over the past decade”.  For, in Choonara’s view, Marx attempted in Capital to see capitalism from the point of view of labour and aimed for a working-class audience.  Capital clearly does the former, but whether it achieved its aim of reaching working class readers is more doubtful.  Choonara’s guide can help here.

I certainly got more out of Choonara’s reader than I did from William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, this year’s winner of the Isaac Deutscher memorial prize.  Using Marx’s motif of Dante’s inferno to describe the iniquities of capitalism, Roberts presents us with a ‘political theory of capital’.  I’m not sure of the value of this approach.  As David Harvey says in his review of the book, “My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works.”  And the inferno motif has little to say about Marx’s economic theory, except to accept Michael Heinrich’s (incorrect in my view) interpretation of Marx’s value theory.

If you want Marxist economic theory, there is the publication by Rick Kuhn of essays by Henryk Grossman on economic dynamics, Sismondi’s theory of crises and on the various trends in bourgeois economics.  It helps us realise how perceptive Marx’s analysis of capitalism is compared to the bourgeois mainstream and the utopian socialists. Marx’s analysis destroys the idea that all can be explained by exchange and markets.  You have to delve beneath the surface to the process of production, in particular to the production of value (use value and exchange value).  As Grossman puts it: “Marx emphasises the decisive importance of the production process, regarded not merely as a process of valorisation but at the same time a labour process… when the production process is regarded as a mere valorisation process – as in classical theory – it has all the characteristics of hoarding, becomes lost in abstraction and is no longer capable of grasping the real economic process.” p156.

Despite the power of Marx’s analysis, it is still the ideas of Keynes that dominate the thinking of heterodox economists in opposing the mainstream.  And this is no accident.  In an excellent book, Geoff Mann from Simon Fraser University presents a sophisticated explanation of Keynes’ dominance in the labour and leftist movements.  In his, In the Long run we are dead, Geoff argues that Keynes rules because he offers a third way between socialist revolution and barbarism, i.e. the end of civilisation as ‘we (actually the bourgeois like Keynes) know it’. This appealed (and still appeals) to the leaders of the labour movement and ‘liberals’ wanting change.  Revolution is risky and we could all go down with it.  Mann: “the Left wants democracy without populism, it wants transformational politics without the risks of transformation; it wants revolution without revolutionaries”. (p21).

What Mann argues is that Keynesian economics dominates the left despite its fallacies and failures because it expresses the fear that many of the leaders of the labour movement have about the masses and revolution.  As an example, read leading Keynesian, James Kwak’s latest book, Economism. Kwak quotes Keynes: “For the most part, I think that Capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight, but that in itself it is in many ways extremely objectionable. Our problem is to work out a social organisation which shall be as efficient as possible without offending our notions of a satisfactory way of life.” And  Kwak comments: “That remains our challenge today.”

To be fair, it ain’t easy opting for an economic policy that threatens the established order.  An inferno will follow from the bourgeois media and institutions.  In the autobiographical book of the year, economist Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister during the euro crisis of 2015, outlined the tortuous and labyrinthine encounters that he had with the Euro group in trying to combat the hell that the Troika of the IMF, ECB and EU aimed to impose on Greece.  Adults in the room, my battle with Europe’s deep establishment, is a personalised account, to say the least.  Varoufakis’ analysis of the crisis and his justification for what happened (the capitulation of the Syriza government and his resignation from the government) bear all the hallmarks of his ‘erratic Marxism’ (as he calls himself).  His battle was lost, but the war continues.

2017 was also the first year of Donald Trump’s reign over US capital.  One of his key aims was to deregulate the business and finance sector from the curbs that Congress had imposed (to some extent) after the global financial crash.  Deregulation at home, but protectionism abroad.  Brett Christophers’ book, The Great Leveller, looks at this dynamic tension between freeing capital from regulation and yet ensuring that it does not bring the house down.  Christopher argues that in this dynamic, law and legal measures have an underappreciated role in trying to preserve a “delicate balance between competition and monopoly”, which is needed to “regulate the rhythms of capitalist accumulation”.  The theme that Christophers highlights is the role of the law in evening out the anarchic swings between excessive monopoly and ruinous competition in different periods of capitalism.  This is a new insight.

But this was the year of the 150th anniversary and it could not go by without a new book on Capital by David Harvey, the most influential Marxist today.  In his Madness of Economic Reason, Harvey sets out his latest view of Marx’s schema in Capital.  This is a well written and easy book to read and not too long.  And there are many video lectures by DH on the main arguments in the book.  Harvey presented his latest thesis at the Capital.150 conference organised by this blog and Kings College in September.

DH’s argues that Volume One of Capital only deals with the production part of the circuit (the production of value and surplus value).  Volume Two deals with the realisation and circulation of capital between sectors in its reproduction, while Volume 3 deals with the distribution of that value.  And while Marx gives a great analysis of the production part, his later volumes are not complete and have been scratched together by Engels.  And thus, according to DH, Marx’s analysis falls short of explaining developments in modern capitalism. Now in the 21st century, crises under capitalism are at least as likely, if not more so, to be found in a breakdown in the circulation or realisation of surplus value than in its production.  And so crises are more likely now to happen in finance and over debt, due to ‘financialisation’.

Anybody who reads my blog, including the post in this conference and previous debates with Harvey on these issues, will know that I do not agree with his view of Capital. I argue that the production of surplus value and the accumulation of capital remains central to Marx’s explanation of capitalism and its contradictions that lead to recurrent crises.  As Marx put it: “The profit of the capitalist class has to exist before it can be distributed.”  The production of value is not, as DH argues, “a small sliver of value in motion” but the largest, both conceptually for Marx and also quantitatively, because in any capitalist economy, 80% of gross output is made up of means of production and intermediate goods compared to consumption.  In my view, the class struggle in the workplace remains at the centre of capitalism because it is about the struggle over the division of value between surplus value and labour’s share, as Marx showed in Volume One.


The above appeared on Mike’s thenextrecession blog on December 21; see here.



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