Monday, August 30, 2021

Are Former Professors As National Leaders More Prone To Black Swan Events That Overthrow Their Governments?

 Probably not, but recent events in Afghanistan suggest an example.  This would be the sudden departure just over two weeks ago on Aug. 15 from Kabul of then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which triggered the sudden collapse of his government and the unexpectedly sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. Even they did not see this coming.  What was the black swan event involved?  It was reported in the Aug. 29 Washington Post that Ghani was told early in the afternoon that Taliban were in his palace searching room by room for him, which led him to leave almost immediately with his family and a few aides off the roof in military helicopters for Uzbekistan where they took a plane to the UAE.  He basically informed nobody of his exit.  In fact the Taliban were not even in Kabul at the time and were sitting outside awaiting the outcome of an ongoing negotiation in Doha, Qatar that was supposed to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power by August 31.  Indeed, only the day before Ghani did not even want to discuss defense arrangements with US military leaders because he was planning to give a talk on digitizing the economy.  Not even the Taliban foresaw what was coming, although all kinds of columnists are given President Biden heck that he did not foresee it. As it is, no one has yet explained why those guards engaged in the black swan event of informing President Ghani of this false report about Taliban in his palace.

As it is, Ashraf Ghani is indeed a former academic, who was a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University before going to work for the World Bank.  He would later serve as Minister of Finance before becoming president. He was often accused of not being completely on top of practical things and too concerned with more abstract issues and policies.  He was also accused of overseeing a highly corrupt regime, which undermined popular support for it and encouraged such support in the countryside for the Taliban.  He has also been accused of being corrupt himself, with there being rumors, denied by his spokespeople, that he left the country with over $100 million in cash.

Where I feel the sorriest for him is how former President Trump completely cut him out of negotiations that Trump had carried out with the Taliban in Doha, resulting in essentially a surrender to the Taliban in Feb. 2020.  This got barely above zero publicity at the time, with major TV networks only spending on average 5 seconds per week on Afghanistan, although now they have nonstop 24/7 coverage. The agreement involved Trump getting Pakistan to release 5000 prisoners, one of them, Baradar, now apparently the main Taliban leader, with some of these people also ISIS-K who are fighting both the US and the Taliban and carried out the suicide bombing at Kabul airport two days ago that killed 13 US military personnel.  The US was to get out by May 1 this year, with the Taliban promising not to attack any US forces, a promise kept, which would help Trump with his reelection campaign, even as it completely undercut and destroyed all confidence in the Afghan government of Ghani.

As it was, President Biden did move that removal date to August 31 from May 1 in negotiation with the Taliban, and it was ISIS-K that killed the US troops, not the Taliban. On April 27 the State Department told Americans to leave Afghanistan, and most have been gotten out, although apparently about 250 are still left who reportedly want out. Criticism that efforts were not made sooner to identify locations of them and also that paperwork to help out departing Afghan allies was not speeded up look valid. Complaints that these people were not moved out sooner face the problem that it was clear that such a move would precipitate the fall of the Ghani regime.

As it was, everybody, even the Taliban, thought the Afghan government would last longer than it did, even those who were forecasting that the removal of US troops would bring about its collapse quickly.  But even those people gave it several months or at least a few weeks.  Heck, the government in place after the Soviets left lasted for several years.  It was only nine days from when the first provincial capital fell on Aug. 6 to the Taliban in the far southwest to the fall of Kabul so suddenly on Aug. 15.

Now we again must recognize that former professor Ghani was not facing the reality of the situation then.  The WaPo story reports how soon after that US military tried to convince him that he needed to make a plan to let some of the capitals go while concentrating on a few that were crucial to the defense of Kabul, especially Jalalabad in the east. But he would have none of it, optimistically declaring they all could be defended even as they began to go in an accelerating wave with Jalalabad falling on Aug. 14. Even then he did not wish to discuss such matters, preferring to plan talks on economic policy. It did not help that his National Security Advisor was a 33-year old former ambassador with no military or intelligence experience.

As it was, apparently in the end he did recognize reality somewhat.  Late in the evening on Aug. 14 apparently he agreed to a negotiation with the Taliban about a power transfer, and on the morning of Aug. 15 an envoy of his actually flew out of Kabul to Doha to engage in that negotiation, which was what had the Taliban sitting outside the gates of Kabul.  But the black swan of guards misinforming Ghani arrived, and it was all over, and we have had a chaotic situation since, even as over 100,000 have been evacuated.

I supposed in the end even a non-former-professor might have fled suddenly if given the false information by guards that Ghani was.  I am seriously wondering if we shall learn what really lay behind this peculiar and unforecastable black swan event.

Barkley Rosserr

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XV: "Chapter Six" from the draft manuscripts of Capital

The draft "Chapter Six" was preceded by an earlier version of the analysis of formal and real subsumption of labour under capital. That earlier version is 28 pages long in volume 34 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. "Chapter Six," proper, is 111 pages long. The earlier version contains one mention of the "labour socially necessary." The later version contains 12 references to: 

  • socially necessary labour time (3)
  • labour time socially necessary
  • socially necessary labour (4)
  • objectified labour... socially necessary 
  • socially necessary amount of labour time
  • socially necessary general labour, and 
  • quantity of labour socially necessary.

Besides "labour socially necessary," the earlier version had one reference to "average labour time necessary" and one to "general social labour time," which by context appear to refer to socially necessary labour time. 

It is, finally, common to all these forms of capitalist production that, for production to occur in a capitalist way, an ever-growing minimum of exchange value, of money—i.e. of constant capital and variable capital—is required to ensure that the labour necessary to obtain the product is the labour socially necessary, i.e. that the labour required for the production of a single commodity=the minimum amount of labour necessary under average conditions. (p. 107, volume 34)

Later in the same paragraph, Marx identified surplus population as integral to the incessant drive for productivity he called the "real subsumption of labour under capital":

It is precisely the productivity, and therefore the quantity of production, the numbers of the population and of the surplus population, created by this mode of production, that constantly calls forth new branches of industry, operating with the capital and labour that have been set free. In these branches capital can once again work on a small scale and again pass through the various phases of development required until with the development of capitalist production labour is carried on on a social scale in these new branches of industry as well, and accordingly capital appears again as a concentration of a great mass of social means of production in a single person's hands. This process is continuous.

With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete revolution takes place in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour, and in the relation -- within production -- between the capitalist and the worker, as also in the social relation between them. (pp. 107-8)

This last paragraph was reprised almost verbatim in the later draft: 

With the real subsumption of labour under capital there takes place a complete //and a constant, continuous, and repeated // revolution in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour and in the relation between capitalist and worker. (p. 439)

After some additional material, the second version also repeats the paragraph that in the earlier version came immediately before the description of real subsumption as a revolution in the mode of production:

The capitalist mode of production develops the productivity of labour, the amount of production, the size of the population, and the size of the surplus population. With the capital and labour thus released, new branches of business are constantly called into existence, and in these capital can again work on a small scale and again pass through the different developments outlined until these new branches of business are also conducted on a social scale. This is a constant process. (p. 440)

The earlier draft is notable for its immediate launch into discussion of the superfluity of all necessary labour that does not produce surplus value. This recalls language from the Grundrisse in "Necessary Labour. Surplus Labour. Surplus Population. Surplus Capital."


Since the purpose of productive labour is not the existence of the worker but the production of surplus value, all necessary labour which produces no surplus labour is superfluous and worthless to capitalist production. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. The same proposition can also be expressed in this way, that all gross product which only replaces the worker's subsistence (approvisionnement), and produces no net product, is just as superfluous as the existence of those workers who themselves produce no net product or no SURPLUS VALUE—or those who, although they were necessary for the production of SURPLUS VALUE at a given stage of the development of industry, have become superfluous to the production of that SURPLUS VALUE at a more advanced stage of development. Or, in other words, only the number of people profitable to capital is necessary. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. (pp. 104-5)

Again, the passage is reprised in the later version almost verbatim:

Gross and Net Product

(This is perhaps better placed in chapter III of Book III) Since the purpose of capitalist production (and therefore of productive labour) is not the existence of the producer but the production of surplus value, all necessary labour which produces no surplus labour is superfluous and worthless to capitalist production. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. All gross product which only reproduces the worker, i.e. produces no net product (surplus PRODUCE) is just as superfluous as that worker, himself [who produces no surplus value]. Or, if certain workers were necessary for the production of net product at a given stage of the development of production, they become superfluous at a more advanced stage of production, which no longer requires them. Or, in other words, only the number of people profitable to capital is necessary. The same is true for a nation of capitalists. (p. 452-3)

For the most part, the passages referring to socially necessary labour time in "Chapter Six" simply reiterate (or anticipate) the definitions given in chapter one of volume one of Capital. Two passage stand out for their explicit connection of the pursuit of relative surplus value through productivity innovations. Notably, the first passage is the opening paragraph of the section on real subsumption:
The Real Subsumption of Labour under Capital or the Specifically Capitalist Mode of Production
In CHAPTER III we exhaustively analysed how the whole real shape of the mode of production changes with the production of relative surplus value //in the case of the individual capitalist, in so far as he seizes the initiative, it is spurred on by the fact that value = the socially necessary labour time objectified in the product, and therefore [extra] surplus value begins to be created for him once the individual value of his product stands below its social value, and can as a result be sold above its individual value// and how a specifically capitalist mode of production arises (technologically as well), on the basis of which, and with which, there also begins a simultaneous development of the relations of production corresponding to the capitalist production process—relations between the different agents of production, in particular between the capitalist and the wage labourer. (p. 428)

The second passage of interest to this review occurs 14 pages later, after a lengthy digression of supplementary remarks on formal subsumption:

On the one hand this [engaging in production for production's sake] appears as a law, to the extent that the capitalist who produces on too small a scale would embody in his products more than the quantity of labour socially necessary. It therefore appears as the adequate implementation of the law of value, which first develops completely on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, however, it appears as the drive of the individual capitalist, who endeavours to reduce the individual value of his commodity below its socially determined value in order to break through this law, or to cheat it to gain an advantage for himself. (p. 442)

In the draft "Chapter Six" Marx did exactly what I criticized him for not doing in chapter 12 of volume one of Capital and even more so in chapters 15 and 25: making explicit the connection between his law of value, and consequently socially necessary labour time, and the capitalist drive for extra surplus value through the introduction of machinery. 

Marx did not dwell extensively on surplus population in the two drafts on the subsumption of labour under capital. But he did mention it and he mentioned it in connection with "the labour socially necessary, i.e. that the labour required for the production of a single commodity."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XIV: Capital volume III, chapters 38 and 49

I thought this was going to be the final installment of my review of Marx's writing on socially necessary labour time but then I discovered, as I was going through my posts that I haven't done the draft "chapter six" that contains the fascinating discussion of formal and real subsumption. So there will be either one or two mores posts. Yay!!

An index page of all the posts so far -- both numbered and unnumbered -- is here

Chapter 38, "Differential rent: general remarks," contains an interested recapitulation of the relationship between market price and value, specifying the "socially necessary quantity of commodity varieties" as part of the determination of socially necessary labour time:

It is in general in the form of the market-price, and, furthermore, in the form of the regulating market-price, or market-price of production, that the nature of the value of commodities asserts itself, its determination not by the labour-time necessary in the case of any individual producer for the production of a certain quantity of commodities, or of some individual commodity, but by the socially necessary labour-time; that is, by the labour-time, required for the production of the socially necessary total quantity of commodity varieties on the market under the existing average conditions of social production.

This isn't a distinction I have encountered before and a search of the collected works turns up no similar phrase. It would appear to refer to the fact that a significant quantity of variety of use values would need to be present on the market for generalized exchange based on abstract values to occur. Later in chapter 38, Marx explained how monopoly access to a waterfall, for example, would enable a capitalist to avoid the cancellation of surplus profit through other capitals introducing the same technology. "It is by no means within the power of capital to call into existence this natural premise for a greater productivity of labour in the same manner as any capital may transform water into steam."

Chapter 49,  "Concerning the analysis of the process of production," reiterates that "Profit (profit of enterprise plus interest) and rent are nothing but peculiar forms assumed by particular parts of the surplus-value of commodities." Marx discussed socially necessary labour time here only in connection with explanation that surplus value may not be entirely realized and that the apportionment of value into wages, profit and rent is simply a capitalist form of expression for "the measure of socially necessary labour contained in a commodity."

Sunday, August 22, 2021

“Do Your Research”

Is it my imagination, or do vax- and mask-hesitant people, reported in news stories about the Covid Divide, almost always say they “have done their research” or something like that?  The medical people and public health advocates that get interviewed rarely seem to use this phrase, at least not in the first person.  More research, more unhinged beliefs—how does that happen?

There are many parts to this story, but one is summed up in the word “research” itself.  In high school, students are taught to use the internet or general bibliographic indexes to find articles about their topic, take notes, and use them to “support” their thesis by showing that there are others, prominent enough to get published, who agree with them.  If they’re lucky, these students will go on to college and come into contact with teachers who de-educate them in this charade of scholarship and instead show how to do the real thing.  But between those who don’t go to college and those who do but don’t find that kind of teacher, most people never graduate from the high school approach.  They think going online and finding a few articles about the government coverup of vaccine deaths or the uselessness of masks means that they have done due diligence, thinking for themselves instead of robotically following public health mandates.

Practically speaking, how can we translate a deeper understanding of “research” into habits that everyone can make sense of and follow?

It’s just one way, but here’s how I taught it in the classroom.  I would say there are really two kinds of research, passive and active.*  Passive research is what you’re taught to do in high school.  You more or less randomly find some articles about the topic you’re interested in, jot down notes, and take stock of what you’ve learned up to that point.  If you are coming at a subject without any prior background, it’s the only way to begin.

But that’s just the first step.  Next, look at your notes and analyze what they say and what’s missing.  If someone says A causes B, do you have a full understanding of how that’s supposed to work—what actual process does it and why other factors don’t prevent it?  Look into the sources you’ve read: do they or the organizations they work for have an interest in the argument they’re making?  If a source offers what seems to be a fringe position, can you explain why it’s fringy—why they haven’t persuaded a bigger chunk of the mainstream of their field to join their side?  For every argument, what are the main counterarguments?  For empirical evidence, what are the uncertainties: the measurement issues, statistical questions, or possible inconsistency with other findings?

There’s no getting around the challenge of this second step.  It requires systematically thinking through the first-round information, locating gaps and squishy parts.  There’s a limit to how thorough you can be, especially if you don’t have much expertise to draw on, but it’s the only antidote to the “little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing” syndrome.

The final step is to move to active research.  Instead of simply reading whatever comes your way on the basis of a very general search, you are actively seeking answers to the specific questions arising from your analysis.  This can mean locating rebuttals to specific authors or arguments, detailed bits of information needed to evaluate empirical claims, or the missing pieces that the initial round of reading didn’t turn up.  This requires more advanced search skills, which a knowledgeable teacher can help with.

The “research” that gathers up a clutch of anti-vax or other fringe Covid-related material is at best just the passive, stage one sort.  Unless you move on from there you may end up less informed, or more misinformed, than you were before you started.

*Actually, the research methods discussed in this post are what practitioners call desk research or literature reviews.  At the base of the food chain are the labors of researchers who themselves gather data, perform analyses or construct models to create new knowledge.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XIII: Capital volume III, chapter 15

Chapter 15 of volume III, "Exposition of the Internal Contradictions of the Law [of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall] is iconic. Sensationalists and contrarians will no doubt be drawn to the chapter on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But true aficionados know that the real meat is in the counter-tendencies (chapter 14) and contradictions. One of the counter-tendencies was relative over-population of workers. It plays an even larger role in the contradictions of the tendency.

The paragraph immediately preceding section III of chapter 15, "Excess Capital and Excess Population," has a familiar ring to it:

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move -- these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means -- unconditional development of the productive forces of society -- comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

What does this remind me of? This paragraph from the Grundrisse fragment on machines:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

Then comes the section on "Excess Capital and Excess Population." Excess, incidentally, is a translation of our old friend, überfluß (as in überflüssig). Surplus population and surplus capital, excess capital and excess population. We appear to have a match here with the section given the heading of "Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population, Surplus capital" in the English translation of the Grundrisse. Or, to be more consistent with a previous post, the three fragments on machines.

Socially necessary labour time is implicated in the first sentence of "Excess Capital and Excess Population":

A drop in the rate of profit is attended by a rise in the minimum capital required by an individual capitalist for the productive employment of labour; required both for its exploitation generally, and for making the consumed labour-time suffice as the labour-time necessary for the production of the commodities, so that it does not exceed the average social labour-time required for the production of the commodities.

Come to think of it "average social labour-time required" would have been a less confusing name for it than socially necessary labour time. A little later in the section, Marx explained that:

This plethora of capital arises from the same causes as those which call forth relative over-population, and is, therefore, a phenomenon supplementing the latter, although they stand at opposite poles — unemployed capital at one pole, and unemployed worker population at the other.

As Marx commented later on, "It is no contradiction that this over-production of capital is accompanied by more or less considerable relative over-population." It is no contradiction because the surplus capital cannot employ the surplus population unless it can produce sufficient surplus value. In short, there is superfluous superfluity (capital, population) on the one hand because there is deficient superfluity (value) on the other. 

Marx summed up the excess capital, excess population contradiction brilliantly in a series of stark rhetorical reversals. I have abridged the text somewhat to emphasize the form of the argument:

There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass.

There are not too many means of production produced to employ the able-bodied portion of the population. Quite the reverse. ...

On the other hand, too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. ...

Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.

The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface...

It comes to a standstill at a point fixed by the production and realisation of profit, and not the satisfaction of requirements.

This sequence reprises the argument made in the Grundrisse -- needs without the means to satisfy them; the relation of necessary and surplus labour turns into its opposite:

Labour capacity can perform its necessary labour only if its surplus labour has value for capital, if it can be realised by capital. Thus, if this realisability is blocked by one or another barrier, then (1) labour capacity itself appears outside the conditions of the reproduction of its existence; it exists without the conditions of its existence, and is therefore a mere encumbrance; needs without the means to satisfy them; (2) necessary labour appears as superfluous, because the superfluous is not necessary. It is necessary only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital. Thus the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite, so that a part of necessary labour – i.e. of the labour reproducing labour capacity – is superfluous, and this labour capacity itself is therefore used as a surplus of the necessary working population, i.e. of the portion of the working population whose necessary labour is not superfluous but necessary for capital.

This is the penultimate installment of my examination of Marx's category of socially necessary labour time. The final post will be anti-climactic. I will be dealing with some "general remarks on differential rent" in chapter 38 of volume III and chapter 49, "concerning the analysis of the process of production." There is nothing really new or unusual about those commentaries, as far as I can see, but it will be useful to go through the exercise for the sake of completeness.


Friday, August 20, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XII: Capital volume III, chapters 5 & 10

In chapter five of volume III, Engels made a blunder by referring to socially necessary labour time as necessary labour time. Presumably, the error originated in Marx's notes and Engels didn't notice and correct it:

If it is the necessary labour-time which determines the value of commodities, instead of all the labour-time contained in them, so it is the capital which realises this determination and, at the same time, continually reduces the labour-time socially necessary to produce a given commodity.

This may seem like nitpicking except that, for Marx, necessary labour time is defined as the time required to recover the cost of labour power and is explicitly differentiated from surplus labour time. The error was not introduced by the translation, the original German also uses notwendige Arbeitzeit where gesellschaftlich notwendige Arbeitzeit would be required by context:

Wenn der Wert der Waren bestimmt ist durch die in ihnen enthaltne notwendige Arbeitszeit, nicht durch die überhaupt in ihnen enthaltne Arbeitszeit, so ist es das Kapital, das diese Bestimmung erst realisiert und zugleich fortwährend die zur Produktion einer Ware gesellschaftlich notwendige Arbeitszeit verkürzt.

We can figure out what Marx/Engels means here but maybe it would have been better to call socially necessary labour-time something more distinctive from necessary labour time?

Chapter ten presents an analysis of how the accidents of supply and demand can result in a price for a commodity above or below its market-value, as determined by socially necessary labour time. It is worth quoting in full:

In the case of supply and demand, however, the supply is equal to the sum of sellers, or producers, of a certain kind of commodity, and the demand equals the sum of buyers or consumers (both productive and individual) of the same kind of commodity. The sums react on one another as units, as aggregate forces. The individual counts here only as part of a social force, as an atom of the mass, and it is in this form that competition brings out the social character of production and consumption.

The side of competition which happens for the moment to be weaker is also the side in which the individual acts independently of, and often directly against, the mass of his competitors, and precisely in this manner is the dependence of one upon the other impressed upon them, while the stronger side acts always more or less as a united whole against its antagonist. If the demand for this particular kind of commodity is greater than the supply, one buyer outbids another — within certain limits — and so raises the price of the commodity for all of them above the market-value, while on the other hand the sellers unite in trying to sell at a high market-price. If, conversely, the supply exceeds the demand, one begins to dispose of his goods at a cheaper rate and the others must follow, while the buyers unite in their efforts to depress the market-price as much as possible below the market-value. The common interest is appreciated by each only so long as he gains more by it than without it. And unity of action ceases the moment one or the other side becomes the weaker, when each tries to extricate himself on his own as advantageously as he possibly can. Again, if one produces more cheaply and can sell more goods, thus possessing himself of a greater place in the market by selling below the current market-price, or market-value, he will do so, and will thereby begin a movement which gradually compels the others to introduce the cheaper mode of production, and one which reduces the socially necessary labour to a new, and lower, level. If one side has the advantage, all belonging to it gain. It is as though they exerted their common monopoly. If one side is weaker, then one may try on his own hook to become the stronger (for instance, one who works with lower costs of production), or at least to get off as lightly as possible, and in such cases each for himself and the devil take the hindmost, although his actions affect not only himself, but also all his boon companions.  

The compulsion to reduce socially necessary labour by introducing cheaper methods of production thus engages the same competitive pressures as the discrepancy between supply and demand. The implication is that the pressure to economize production is especially intense in industries that already confront a surplus of supply over demand. I don't know what the empirical evidence for (or against) this is but it would be interesting to find out.

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time XI, Capital, volume II

Aside from a comment on the "labour socially necessary" in Engels's preface, there is no other mention of socially necessary labour time in volume II of Capital. That preface is where Engels wrote of Marx saving The Source and Remedy from oblivion, albeit with only a single, short innocuous quotation (see also this earlier post). 

In the early post, I related how Anton Menger had doubted Engels's story of the pamphlet's influence on Marx. Menger's book was first published in German in 1886, long before Marx's notebooks from 1857-58 and 1861-63 were published. The evidence in those notebooks is that the pamphlet's influence on Marx was greater than Engels had claimed. Because I have already discussed the "saved from oblivion" passage, I will say no more at this time.

The passage from the preface that mentioned labour socially necessary is of interest because it appears in an argument Engels was making about Marx's scientific originality.

Marx stands in the same relation to his predecessors in the theory of surplus-value as Lavoisier stood to Priestley and Scheele. The existence of that part of the value of products which we now call surplus-value had been ascertained long before Marx. It had also been stated with more or less precision what it consisted of, namely, of the product of the labour for which its appropriator had not given any equivalent. But one did not get any further. Some — the classical bourgeois economists — investigated at most the proportion in which the product of labour was divided between the labourer and the owner of the means of production. Others — the Socialists — found that this division was unjust and looked for utopian means of abolishing this injustice. They all remained prisoners of the economic categories as they had come down to them.

Now Marx appeared upon the scene. And he took a view directly opposite to that of all his predecessors. What they had regarded as a solution, he considered but a problem. 

Granted, Marx's solution was impressive and original. But Engels overestimated the extent to which Marx's predecessors "remained prisoners of the economic categories as they had come down to them." The "Ricardian Socialists" were neither Ricardian nor socialist. Even if Menger was wrong about the 1821 pamphlet's influence on Marx, he was right about the debt of the pamphleteers to William Godwin's Political Justice

The first of two points on which "the Ricardian school suffered shipwreck," according to Engels, was the apparent paradox between the value of the wage and the value of the product of labour. Marx's solution was to distinguish between labour and labour-power, the latter being the commodity the worker sells:

It is not labour which is bought and sold as a commodity, but labour-power. As soon as labour-power becomes a commodity, its value is determined by the labour embodied in this commodity as a social product. This value is equal to the labour socially necessary for the production and reproduction of this commodity. Hence the purchase and sale of labour-power on the basis of its value thus defined does not at all contradict the economic law of value.

Engels here elided the possibility that labour power may not sell at its value or may be unsaleable, a point also omitted by Marx in chapter six of volume one. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Three "Fragment[s] on Machines": überflüssig ist notwendig

An excerpt of a passage from the Grundrisse, in the notorious "fragment on machines," has become iconic in contemporary Marx studies:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

I have highlighted in green part of the passage that Moishe Postone quoted twice in his Time, Labor and Social Domination. For Postone, the passage had profound emancipatory implications. The second citation precedes the climax of his interpretation of Marx's theory. The category of "superfluous labor time" is central to Postone's interpretation: 

The difference between the total labor time determined as socially necessary by capital, on the one hand, and the amount of labor that would be necessary, given the development of socially general productive capacities, were material wealth the social form of wealth, on the other, is what Marx calls in the Grundrisse "superfluous" labor time.

Postone's speculation about the amount of labour time that "would be necessary" unwittingly reverts to Dilke's (and Godwin's) concept of consumption-based social necessity that Marx implicitly critiqued with his category of socially necessary labour time. Although it isn't self-evident from the Grundrisse passage, Marx's use of superfluous here is more likely to refer primarily to superfluous labour capacity rather than merely superfluous production. Granted the latter is implied by the former but Marx's analysis points to relative surplus population, the disposable industrial reserve army, as capital's instintive reflex. 

Marx cited The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties immediately after the paragraph about capital's "moving contradiction" but Postone didn't mention the pamphlet anywhere in his book. Marx's juxtaposition of the superfluous as a condition for the necessary with Dilke's exaltation of disposable time is too central to Marx's point to be glossed over. What superfluous (überflüssig) refers to here can best be understood from the recognition that there are not one but three pertinent fragments on machines in the Grundrisse that examine the contradictions of überflüssig and notwendig labour power and labour time.

Those fragments can be found on pages 397-401, 608-610, and 690-712 (especially pp. 704-709) of the 1973 English translation of Grundrisse by Martin Nicolaus, published by Penguin Books. Marx did mention surplus population in the pp. 690-712 fragment:

As the magnitude of relative surplus labour depends on the productivity of necessary labour, so does the magnitude of labour time – living as well as objectified – employed on the production of fixed capital depend on the productivity of the labour time spent in the direct production of products. Surplus population (from this standpoint), as well as surplus production, is a condition for this. That is; the output of the time employed in direct production must be larger, relatively, than is directly required for the reproduction of the capital employed in these branches of industry. The smaller the direct fruits borne by fixed capital, the less it intervenes in the direct production process, the greater must be this relative surplus population and surplus production; thus, more to build railways, canals, aqueducts, telegraphs etc. than to build the machinery directly active in the direct production process. Hence – a subject to which we will return later – in the constant under- and overproduction of modern industry – constant fluctuations and convulsions arise from the disproportion, when sometimes too little, then again too much circulating capital is transformed into fixed capital.

The pp. 608-610 fragment is more explicit about the relationship between necessary labour (individual and social), superfluous labour power, and surplus population:

The expression, surplus population, concerns exclusively labour capacities, i.e. the necessary population; surplus of labour capacities. But this arises simply from the nature of capital. Labour capacity can perform its necessary labour only if its surplus labour has value for capital, if it can be realized by capital. Thus, if this realizability is blocked by one or another barrier, then (1) labour capacity itself appears outside the conditions of the reproduction of its existence; it exists without the conditions of its existence, and is therefore a mere encumbrance; needs without the means to satisfy them; (2) necessary labour appears as superfluous, because the superfluous is not necessary. It is necessary only to the extent that it is the condition for the realization of capital.

Thus the relation of necessary and surplus labour, as it is posited by capital, turns into its opposite, so that a part of necessary labour – i.e. of the labour reproducing labour capacity – is superfluous, and this labour capacity itself is therefore used as a surplus of the necessary working population, i.e. of the portion of the working population whose necessary labour is not superfluous but necessary for capital.

Since the necessary development of the productive forces as posited by capital consists in increasing the relation of surplus labour to necessary labour, or in decreasing the portion of necessary labour required for a given amount of surplus labour, then, if a definite amount of labour capacity is given, the relation of necessary labour needed by capital must necessarily continuously decline, i.e. part of these labour capacities must become superfluous, since a portion of them suffices to perform the quantity of surplus labour for which the whole amount was required previously. The positing of a specific portion of labour capacities as superfluous, i.e. of the labour required for their reproduction as superfluous, is therefore a necessary consequence of the growth of surplus labour relative to necessary.

The pp. 397-401 fragment offers more elaboration on the historical evolution of superfluous labour time and its expression, under capital, as surplus population:

Just as capital on one side creates surplus labour, surplus labour is at the same time equally the presupposition of the existence of capital. The whole development of wealth rests on the creation of disposable time. The relation of necessary labour time to the superfluous (such it is, initially, from the standpoint of necessary labour) changes with the different stages in the development of the productive forces. In the less productive stages of exchange, people exchange nothing more than their superfluous labour time; this is the measure of their exchange, which therefore extends only to superfluous products. In production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time.


It is a law of capital, as we saw, to create surplus labour, disposable time; it can do this only by setting necessary labour in motion – i.e. entering into exchange with the worker. It is its tendency, therefore, to create as much labour as possible; just as it is equally its tendency to reduce necessary labour to a minimum. It is therefore equally a tendency of capital to increase the labouring population, as well as constantly to posit a part of it as surplus population – population which is useless until such time as capital can utilize it. (Hence the correctness of the theory of surplus population and surplus capital.) It is equally a tendency of capital to make human labour (relatively) superfluous, so as to drive it, as human labour, towards infinity.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that Moishe Postone's critique of "traditional Marxism" and his analysis of this particular passage were crucial to my deeper understanding of Capital and the Grundrisse. My critique of Postone's interpretation of this passage doesn't unravel the importance of his contribution.

In the same vein, it is my view that Marx's critique of political economy owed far more than has been previously acknowledged to the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties and especially to those two things "our pamphleteer" overlooked that, in my opinion, laid the cornerstone for Marx's critique. It was Postone's omission of Marx's quotation of the pamphlet that sent me to the library to ferret out the microfilm copy a couple of decades ago.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Half Century Since The Beginning Of The End Of The Post WW II Economic Order

 It was also on a Sunday, with financial markets closed, that August 15, 1971, when US President Richard Nixon gave a surprise address to the nation on economic policy.  He made three announcements: 1) a 90-day wage-price freeze, 2) a10 percent across the board tariff on all imports, and most importantly 3) the closing of the gold window meaning the US Treasury would no longer pay gold to somebody bringing US dollars to it, the final end of the gold standard.  It was not quite the end of the post-WW II Bretton Woods system, established in 1944 at a conference at that New Hampshire town as the mostly fixed exchange rate system was maintained, but that would end in early 1973 when the US dollar was set to float against other major currencies according to market forces, which is what it has done ever since, although with an occasional market intervention here and there.  Later in 1973 would come the first OPEC-led oil price shock, and most observers consider that year to be the actual end of that post-WW II economic order, which saw mostly solid growth in the leading economies of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, with a few exceptions, notably the UK.

This move fundamentally reflected something that has continued, a steady decline of the relative economic position of the US in the world economic system, which was a peak at the end of WW II when the Bretton Woods system was put in place. Then the US had half the world's GDP, and basically had trade surpluses with nearly every nation in the world.  There was a dollar shortage, and the US would set up programs such as the Marshall Plan to overcome this and provide financial assistance especially to war-damaged western European economies.  But then in the 1950s, while the UK went into a general decline, losing its colonies and the global status of its pound sterling, running chronic large trade deficits that led to several devaluations of the pound, other nations grew rapidly with the Common Market being formed on the European continent and West Germany and France and Italy all growing solidly, as well as Japan, of course.  

By the early 1960s many of these nations had turned the trade situation around and were running bilateral surpluses with the US. France's President de Gaulle emphasized the change of status, along with withdrawing from NATO and developing its independent nuclear "force de frappe," he also demanded that the US pay France gold to cover the deficits.  In practice this meant that in the basement of the New York Federal Reserve Bank somebody went into a room where gold was identified as belonging to the US and then moving it to another room down a hall or two where there was gold identified as belonging to France. August 15, 1971 put an end to this sort of publicity stunt.  But rising trade deficits and rising inflation pushed Nixon, who was looking at a reelection campaign the following year (when he took 49 states), to make his moves to put both inflation and trade deficits at least temporarily under control.

It is a curious thing that it is really quite rare for there to be a single day when something happens that leads to a systemic change of the world economic system.  I can only think of two days since of comparable significance.  One was November 8, 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, which presaged the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, and the move into transition of basically the entire Soviet bloc, with the Soviet Union itself splintering into 15 nations at the end of 1991. The paths these nations have taken since have been quite diverse and with widely varying outcomes.  But the global economic system was certainly changed. 

I think another date of great significance was September 18, 2008, although this was not accompanied by major public announcements. But this was the most dramatic point of the financial crash that dragged the world into the Great Recession.  But it led to major changes in how central banks operate around the world, led by the US Fed making a not-publicized decision to bail out the European Central Bank, which in turn was struggling to prop up various major European banks that were getting dragged down in the crash.  The Fed did a swap that put over half a trillion USD of European debts on its books, which would be gradually unloaded over the next six months to be replaced by mortgage-backed securities, also something the Fed had not had on its books before.  But various other tools were created or brought out then that have remained, such as quantitative easing.

I supposed another possible one would be the day in late 1973 when indeed Saudi Arabia announced its oil embargo of the US during the Yom Kippur War, which was followed by a massive increase in oil prices, the first oil price shock.  But it was probably the case that such an increase was coming, even if it might have arrived more gradually without that move.  But that move, and the ending of the fixed exchange rate system earlier that year, were arguably the outcome of Nixon's speech a half century ago today.

Barkley Rosser

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time X (part two): The palimpsest of Capital

The law of supply and demand for labour power is perverse in that the more fertile labour power's use value as a source of surplus value becomes, the lower its value and, consequently, its exchange value. Clearly such a perverse law is difficult to explain. It is paradoxical and counter-intuitive.

Perhaps Marx was wary of repeating himself or of giving explanations that confuse the reader because they are so damned convoluted. Whatever the reason, he held back from closing the deal. His discussion of relative surplus population does not drill down to the bedrock of his value theory -- abstract average socially necessary labour time. Instead, he railed against Political Economy for its apologetic and opportunistic dogma of supply and demand:

The action of the law of supply and demand of labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital. As soon, therefore, as the labourers learn the secret, how it comes to pass that in the same measure as they work more, as they produce more wealth for others, and as the productive power of their labour increases, so in the same measure even their function as a means of the self-expansion of capital becomes more and more precarious for them; as soon as they discover that the degree of intensity of the competition among themselves depends wholly on the pressure of the relative surplus population; as soon as, by Trades’ Unions, &c., they try to organise a regular co-operation between employed and unemployed in order to destroy or to weaken the ruinous effects of this natural law of capitalistic production on their class, so soon capital and its sycophant, Political Economy, cry out at the infringement of the “eternal” and so to say “sacred” law of supply and demand. Every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the “harmonious” action of this law. But, on the other hand, as soon as (in the colonies, e.g.) adverse circumstances prevent the creation of an industrial reserve army and, with it, the absolute dependence of the working class upon the capitalist class, capital, along with its commonplace Sancho Panza, rebels against the “sacred” law of supply and demand, and tries to check its inconvenient action by forcible means and State interference. p 599-600.

In the flurry of indignant rhetoric, Marx appears to have misplaced his value theory and conjured up a new theory, the "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" to explain what his value theory could have more adequately explained:

The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. p.601

What Marx called here "the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" is instead a consequence of the law of value as it manifests itself in the specifically-capitalist mode of production. There are not two laws. Marx's "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" is a corollary of the law of value.

Accumulation is what happens when the law of value is fully operational in a capitalist society. Marx appears to have forgotten in these chapters that his exposition of simple commodity production and exchange was an abstraction from capitalist social relations and mode of production. As Engels pointed out some years later, "The value form of products therefore already contains in embryo the whole capitalist form of production, the antagonism between capitalists and wage-workers, the industrial reserve army, crises." Thus surplus value already contains in embryo accumulation:

But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. p 604

"All methods for the production of surplus-value" boil down to the buying and selling of labour power. In other words, chapter six, the first place where Marx could have been more explicit about the role of socially necessary labour time in establishing the value of labour power, but wasn't.

Beneath Capital are several layers of draft manuscripts that trace the erasure of the bombastic epiphanies of Necessary Labour. Surplus Labour. Surplus Population. Surplus Capital. Most relevant to the discussion of accumulation, machinery and the relative surplus population is a second draft of the chapter on machinery in the 1861-63 manuscripts. 

The draft chapter on machinery in the manuscript begins: 

John Stuart Mill remarks: "It is questionable, if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being." He should have said, OF ANY TOILING HUMAN BEING. But on the basis of capitalist production the purpose of machinery is by no means TO LIGHTEN OR SHORTEN THE DAYS TOIL of the worker. 

Chapter 15 of volume one of Capital begins: 

John Stuart Mill says in his Principles of Political Economy: "It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being." That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery.

The draft chapter runs from pages 318 to 346 of volume 30 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works. It continues through pages 372 to 387 of volume 33 and concludes in pages 8 to 60 of volume 34. The phrase, socially necessary labour time (or labour time socially necessary), appears six times on those pages. I don't know how to explain this conspicuous discrepancy between the draft and the published version.

Of particular interest is a three paragraph passage from the sections in volume 34. As a footnote explains: "The passage comprising here the three foregoing paragraphs was taken over by Marx, with some alterations, from the Manuscripts of 1857-58 (see present edition, Vol. 28, pp. 326-27)."

The passage on pp. 326-27 of volume 28 (Grundrisse) happens to be one of the three passages in the Grundrisse that play intensively on the tension between the necessary and the superfluous, in which under capitalism the necessary becomes superfluous and the superfluous becomes necessary. That is to say the inversion in capitalism of the superfluous (überflüssig) and the necessary (notwendig) -- labour time and surplus population (i.e., labour capacity) -- that I have promised to discuss in a future post. That will still require its own post -- this one is already too long -- but I will mention here that the other two passages are "Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population. Surplus capital" and a large part of the infamous "Fragment on Machines." Two of the passage cite The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties affirmatively.

Obviously that future post on the superfluous and the necessary should be my next post. I will leave the reader, though, with one more tidbit from Marx's draft chapter on machinery. In a parenthesis in the first paragraph -- clearly for his own reference -- is the phrase, "surplus population and surplus capital." In the Grundrisse passage Marx reworked in that second draft one finds the parenthetical remark, "Hence the correctness of the theory of surplus population and surplus capital (emphasis added)."

Where is this theory of surplus population and surplus capital? One likely place is the passage in the Grundrisse titled "Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population. Surplus capital," which follows directly after critical commentary on Malthus. Malthus also commented on surplus population and surplus capital:

But it appears to me perfectly clear in theory, and universally confirmed by experience, that the employment of capital may, and in fact often does, find a limit, long before there is any real difficulty in procuring the means of subsistence; and that both capital and population may be at the same time, and for a period of considerable length, redundant, compared with the effectual demand for produce.

Engels, in his "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" (1844) briefly mentioned the connection between surplus population and surplus capital:

If Malthus had not considered the matter so one-sidedly, he could not have failed to see that  surplus population or labour-power is invariably tied up with surplus wealth, surplus capital and surplus landed property.

But neither of these remarks constitutes a theory. This is a theory. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time X (part one): Chapters 15 and 25 Capital, volume one.

I started this series with the intention of comparing Dilke's "plain leveling principle" consumption-based conception of socially necessary labour time with Marx's theory of value founded on a production-based concept of socially necessary labour time. Two episodes and a digression later, that original plan was upended by my encounter with the section in the Grundrisse titled Necessary labour. Surplus labour. Surplus population. Surplus capital, which made me rethink the scope and span of Marx's concept.

The text of Capital would seem to offer evidence against my hypothesis that relative surplus population is already implicated in the concept of socially necessary labour time. Nowhere in the three volumes of Capital do the terms socially necessary labour time and relative surplus population (or industrial reserve army) appear in close proximity to each other. Chapters 15 and 25 of volume one are exemplary in their discussion of relative surplus population without mentioning socially necessary labour time -- or even the abbreviated form of social labour. But then Friedrich Engels, in Anti-Dühring, concisely confirmed that the industrial reserve army is already contained, in embryo, in the value form of commodities.

There are several passages in chapters 15 and 25 that hint at the SNLT/RSP relationship but do not explicitly cite it.

...the application of machinery to the production of surplus-value implies a contradiction which is immanent in it, since of the two factors of the surplus-value created by a given amount of capital, one, the rate of surplus-value, cannot be increased, except by diminishing the other, the number of workmen. This contradiction comes to light, as soon as by the general employment of machinery in a given industry, the value of the machine-produced commodity regulates the value of all commodities of the same sort; and it is this contradiction, that in its turn, drives the capitalist, without his being conscious of the fact, to excessive lengthening of the working-day, in order that he may compensate the decrease in the relative number of labourers exploited, by an increase not only of the relative, but of the absolute surplus-labour. p 383-4

Regulation of all the commodities of the same type by the value of the commodities produced by machine is a function of the latter establishing the social necessary labour time for all commodities of the type.

The whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labour-power as a commodity. Division of labour specialises this labour-power, by reducing it to skill in handling a particular tool. So soon as the handling of this tool becomes the work of a machine, then, with the use-value, the exchange-value too, of the workman’s labour-power vanishes; the workman becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. That portion of the working-class, thus by machinery rendered superfluous, i.e., no longer immediately necessary for the self-expansion of capital, either goes to the wall in the unequal contest of the old handicrafts and manufactures with machinery, or else floods all the more easily accessible branches of industry, swamps the labour-market, and sinks the price of labour-power below its value. p 405-6

Because it is treated as a commodity, like any other commodity, labour power's exchange value vanishes when machine production sets a new standard of socially necessary labour time and thus devalues the worker's now obsolete labour power.  

But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost. Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation. p. 592
Here is the first of three instances of "disposable" in three pages: disposable industrial reserve army, disposable human material, and disposable labour power. The sense is not primarily that the workers can be discarded but that they become available for some other purpose. But the connotation lingers that they can be dispensed with.

The expansion by fits and starts of the scale of production is the preliminary to its equally sudden contraction; the latter again evokes the former, but the former is impossible without disposable human material, without an increase, in the number of labourers independently of the absolute growth of the population. This increase is effected by the simple process that constantly “sets free” a part of the labourers; by methods which lessen the number of labourers employed in proportion to the increased production. p. 593

Capitalist production can by no means content itself with the quantity of disposable labour power which the natural increase of population yields. It requires for its free play an industrial reserve army independent of these natural limits. p. 594

It goes without saying -- literally -- that this disposable labour power has been made redundant (superfluous, disposable, surplus) by the operation of the law of value.

If the means of production, as they increase in extent and effective power, become to a less extent means of employment of labourers, this state of things is again modified by the fact that in proportion as the productiveness of labour increases, capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers. The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. p. 595-6

The explanation for this disproportion of labour supply and demand is, to restate the obvious, that labour power is a commodity and like any other commodity is subject to having its value depreciated by an increase in the productivity of labour power (decrease in socially necessary labour time) and faces the possibility of even that reduced value not being realized in exchange. 

The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and to the domination of capital. p. 598

I have divided up what was beoming a very long post into two moderately long posts. I will schedule part two to publish 24 hours after part one. 

Biden Follows Trump On Foreign Policy

 We are now looking at a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.  It looks like the Taliban will probably take control of Kabul and thus Afghanistan in the near future. Reports already show that where they control women cannot go to school and appear in public without a veil in public and much more. Many women there are unfortunately going to suffer greatly as a result of this. I am so very deeply sorry.

Yes, as an American who supported the original invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago to overturn the Taliban and end support for al Qaeda who did the 9/11 attack two decades ago, I am also frustrated that we did not get the heck out once the Taliban were overthrown. But it remains unclear why we did stay then, especially given that the W. Bush admin turned to invading Iraq. Latest I have checked it seems that it was Rumsfeld who played the key role in deciding that that the US stay in Afghanistan, even as that admin basically gave up on getting bin Laden.

So this should not be a partisan issue in the US. Pres.Biden long ago, including as Obama's VP, led opposition to increasing efforts in Afghanistan. He accurately understood that this was an ultimately bad situation to get more deeply involved in, And he then made it clear he thought we should be getting out. 

This was the position of Biden's predecessor, Trump, who also called for the US leaving Afghanistan. He steadily reduced the US troop presence, and negotiated a final full withdrawal. But various advisors held him back from effectuating the final withdrawal, leaving that to his successor. But what was left was not sustainable. 

There are other areas where Biden seems to be following Trump policies.  These include his reluctance to rejoin the JCPOA Iranian nuclear deal, which he promised to do, and he should have done.  But now there is a new hardline president in Iran in reaction to just this, the failure of Biden to rejoin the deal. This is simply awful.

The list is long, and I frankly do not get why Biden has held back on so much of this.  So, he has yet to remove almost any of the stupid garbage Trump tariffs. He has if anything made Trump's prohibition of receiving refugees from abroad harder. And he is all in on Trump's Afghanistan policy, which looks now to be a total humanitarian disaster.  But the GOP is already falsely claiming the disaster will all be Biden's fault, not Trump's. 

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Disposable forces, disposable class

Thomas Chalmers undoubtedly cribbed his "disposable population" from Turgot's classe disponible. Turgot's meaning seems to be different from Chalmers's. Turgot uses the term to refer to the class's revenue coming from a surplus of produce and thus being available for use however the proprietor wishes. That is the revenue could be used for luxury consumption or it could be used for improvement of lands, purchase of machines, etc. I would take Turgot's classe disponible to be roughly equivalent to rentier.

The disposability of Chalmers's disposable population, on the other hand, has to do with the facility with which they could be reassigned to different occupations -- such as the military. That latter usage brings to mind that "disposable forces" was a term of military strategy that referred to military units that could be quickly moved to a new location in response to an enemy threat. The term appears to have been most widely in use in the 19th century.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Politics and the Pandemic: Why I Think Paul Krugman Is Wrong

 Krugman has a piece in the New York Times today that offers an explanation for why Republicans oppose every measure—vaccination, masking, limits on indoor gathering—that could reverse the pandemic.  He says it’s because the Democrats support them and that Biden would take credit for reduced caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths.  Since owning the libs is the guiding philosophy of Republican politicians and their minions, such actions have to be fought at all costs.

The problem is that pandemic denial is a feature of the far right worldwide.  You can find it in England, France, Germany, Poland, Brazil and points between.  Explanations based on US political dynamics are insufficient (although they might be correct in a more limited way).

Here is my candidate: The pandemic gives the lie to the rigid individualism that draws hard lines around each person’s body and mind—the “you are the king in your own castle” idea.  It’s the bedrock of such notions as personal responsibility being the sole determinant of life events, unrestricted individual autonomy and the belief that collective action is an assault on “freedom”.  Actually, we are interconnected in a myriad of ways, culturally, economically and, as the coronavirus demonstrates, physiologically.  We are really a “we” whether we like it or not.

Far right politics is based on hard line individualism.  So is a strand of alternative health, which promotes the notion that it is within the power of each person to “choose” to be free of disease by following one or another program.  If the pandemic refutes these simplistic ideas, their response is denial.

Cognitive dissonance.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time IX: Chapters 12, 13, 14, 21 & 22 of Capital, vol. one.

There is nothing significant in these chapters regarding socially necessary labour time. 

Chapter 12, the concept of relative surplus value, would be a good place for Marx to tell readers that socially necessary labour time, per capital, entails the production of a relative surplus population. Instead, we get only an anodyne definition of the productiveness of labour:

By increase in the productiveness of labour, we mean, generally, an alteration in the labour-process, of such a kind as to shorten the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity, and to endow a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use value.

Chapter 13, co-operation, gives a slightly confusing discussion of what happens when one worker exceeds the time socially necessary to produce a commodity:

If one workman required considerably more time for the production of a commodity than is socially necessary, the duration of the necessary labour-time would, in his case, sensibly deviate from the labour-time socially necessary on an average; and consequently, his labour would not count as average labour, nor his labour power as average labour-power.

Typically "one worker" does not produce a commodity, especially if we are talking about "co-operation." The "duration of the necessary labour-time" refers, in this sentence to the portion of the working day that the worker is compensated for while the labour-time socially necessary refers to the average time required to produce the commodity. Those two durations would "deviate" from each other in any event, since they refer to times required for different purposes - reproduction of labour power and production of commodities, respectively. Marx's purpose here is to explain the rationale for assuming a fixed minimum of labour efficiency.

Chapter 14, division of labour and manufacture, explains that the rule of socially necessary labour time is enforced by competition, since "each single producer is obliged to sell his commodity at its market-price."

Chapter 21, piece wages, explains the piece-work is no different from hourly work in that the piece rates are established by observation of how long, on average, it takes to produce each piece, "Only the working-time which is embodied in a quantum of commodities determined beforehand, and experimentally fixed, counts as socially necessary working-time, and is paid as such."

Chapter 22, national differences in wages, relates wage differentials between countries to differences in the average intensity of labour in each country: "In every country there is a certain average intensity of labour below which the labour for the production of a commodity requires more than the socially necessary time, and therefore does not reckon as labour of normal quality."

I skipped chapter 15 in this post because I am going to include it with chapter 25 in a forthcoming post.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Antivax Memes

 Based on various sources, including the recent NY Times podcast with interviews of vaccine resisters/hesitants, here’s my list of common elements.

1. Assuming the sole criterion for whether to take the vaccine is its effect on your own health—not taking into account whether you may infect someone else.  Antivax people nearly always justify their choice in terms of their perceived risk of getting Covid and the personal risk posed by the vaccine and not in terms of the vaccine’s potential role (or lack of it) in reducing the extent and duration of the pandemic.

2. Bodily violation: resistance to accepting a foreign substance into their body.  Also resistant to pressure from others, such as employers and government, to allow this substance to cross the “skin line”.

3. Personal responsibility for health.  Some antivax people think that how sick you get from Covid depends on your general state of health, itself perhaps the result of the measures you’ve taken to protect it.  If you stick to what you think is a healthy diet, if you work out, or if you just think you just have “good genes”, you do not think you are at risk and need to vaccinate against it.  Some strands of alternative health are strongly invested in the view that there is no randomness to disease: if you get sick it’s because you failed to cleanse, build up your immune system, tune your energy or otherwise do what you should have done.  Conversely, if you’ve followed the program you’re not at risk and don’t have to vaccinate.

4. Apparent inability to think probabilistically.  A common remark is that you can get Covid even if you’re vaccinated, so what’s the point?  Risk is perceived in binary terms: it exists or it doesn’t.

5. Fatalism.  Whatever happens happens.  There’s no point to getting vaccinated; you’ll get sick and die sooner or later anyway.

6. Distrust.  These are experimental vaccines that haven’t been approved by the FDA yet.  And even when the FDA says it’s OK, who believes them?  The government and the media lie with abandon.  The vaccines are also being pushed by corporations that just want to make as much money as they can.

Efforts to persuade people to drop their resistance to the vaccines need to begin by listening to them and communicating with them where they are.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Socially Ambivalent Labour Time VIII: Capital, volume one, chapters 6, 7 & 8

Chapter six, the buying and selling of labour power, contains neither "socially necessary labour time" nor "labour time socially necessary." Instead it has a few synonyms:

Suppose that in this mass of commodities requisite for the average day there are embodied 6 hours of social labour, then there is incorporated daily in labour-power half a day’s average social labour, in other words, half a day’s labour is requisite for the daily production of labour-power. This quantity of labour forms the value of a day’s labour-power or the value of the labour-power daily reproduced. If half a day’s average social labour is incorporated in three shillings, then three shillings is the price corresponding to the value of a day’s labour-power.

This passage says no more than that the value of a day's average labour power is equal to the value of the labour time socially necessary to produce the subsistence goods that maintain the labourer. Nothing here about relative surplus population.

Chapter seven, the labour process and the process of producing surplus value, reiterates the determination of value by the socially necessary (average) labour time it takes to produce the commodity and gives the example of spinning cotton into yarn. 

Chapter eight, constant capital and variable, reminds the reader that,

If the time socially necessary for the production of any commodity alters – and a given weight of cotton represents, after a bad harvest, more labour than after a good one – all previously existing commodities of the same class are affected, because they are, as it were, only individuals of the species, and their value at any given time is measured by the labour socially necessary, i.e., by the labour necessary for their production under the then existing social conditions.

It strikes me as odd that in discussing the buying and selling of labour power, and the labour process, Marx omitted mentioning that labour power, like any other commodity, could be produced in quantities larger than the market can stomach, thus resulting in the creation of a relative surplus population or industrial reserve army.

My point is that nowhere in Capital did Marx make the simple and obvious specification of his value theory that the relative surplus population is inherent in the concept of socially necessary labour time. Not in chapters 6 or 7, not in chapters 1 or 3, and not in chapters 15 or 25. Nor in any of the other chapters of volumes one, two or three. Does that mean Marx "changed his mind" sometime after writing the Grundrisse?

Not according to Friedrich Engels, who wrote, in Anti-Dühring Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution In Science:

The fact that the value of a commodity is expressed only in terms of another commodity, and can only be realised in exchange for it, admits of the possibility that the exchange may never take place altogether, or at least may not realise the correct value. Finally, when the specific commodity labour-power appears on the market, its value is determined, like that of any other commodity, by the labour-time socially necessary for its production. The value form of products therefore already contains in embryo the whole capitalist form of production, the antagonism between capitalists and wage-workers, the industrial reserve army, crises. 

Engels's statement is the only time in the entire Marx-Engels Collected Works that the words socially necessary labour, and either industrial reserve or surplus population occur within 100 words of each other -- that is, even after leaving time, army, and relative out of the search! That is remarkable because in the Grundrisse, there are three passages of considerable length that discuss precisely  the inversion in capitalism between superfluous (überflüssig) and necessary (notwendig) labour time and surplus population (i.e., labour capacity). I will discuss those passages in a future post.

How Marx saved The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties from falling into oblivion.

Friedrich Engels in the 1885 preface to volume two of Capital

On page 609 of the first volume (Das Kapital, 2nd ed.) we find the following quotation, “The possessors of surplus-produce or capital,” taken from a pamphlet entitled The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. A Letter to Lord John Russell, London, 1821. In this pamphlet of 40 pages, the importance of which should have been noted if only on account of the one expression “surplus-produce or capital,” and which Marx saved from falling into oblivion, we read the following statements:

“...whatever may be due to the capitalist” (from the standpoint of the capitalist) “he can only receive the surplus-labour of the labourer; for the labourer must live” (p. 23). 


Marx makes the following comment (manuscript Zur Kritik, p. 852): “This little known pamphlet — published at a time when the ‘incredible cobbler’ MacCulloch began to be talked about — represents an essential advance over Ricardo."


Our pamphlet is but the farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus-value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat, fought the bourgeoisie with its own weapons.

So how did Marx save this "farthest outpost of entire literature," this "essential advance over Ricardo" from "falling into oblivion"? Engels already told us. On page 609 of volume one of Das Kapital, Marx included a rather innocuous quote from the pamphlet in a sampling of similar quotes from other authors.

That's it. That's the rescue. 

Whatever else Marx may have had to say about the pamphlet was buried in manuscripts that would remain unpublished during Engels's lifetime.

Why does this even matter? Because what Marx called his "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" is indistinguishable from the "two things" that the author of the pamphlet allegedly "overlooked." 

The cornerstone of Marx's critique of political economy was a (mostly friendly) critique of a critique of political economy. I say "mostly friendly" because it seems Marx overlooked exculpatory evidence against the charge that the pamphleteer overlooked those two things. But that story is for another time.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Israel Pays For Bibi's Successful Campaign Against The JCPOA Iran Nuclear Agreement

 In the last few days for the first time in many years northern Israel has been on the receiving end of rockets fired out of southern Lebanon, territory under the control of the Shia Hezbollah group long supported by Iranian interests, although apparently some think that it was Palestinians living in this area who fired the rockets. Even if it was, clearly this would not have happened without approval from Iran.

Also in the last few days an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf controlled by the Israelis has been attacked by drones apparently from Iran.  Israel has been suddenly on the receiving end of attacks either approved by Iran or actually from Iran. Why now?

The obvious reason is that Iran got a new hardline president, al Raisi, on Tuesday.  He is ahowing his hardline credentials, and the word is out that this is showing Iran's unhappiness at the economic sanctions it is under due to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, with so far, much to my unhappiness, President Biden has failed to get the US and Iran back into the agrement.

Of course probably the worst enemy of the agreement, who played a major role in convincing then President Trump to withdraw from the agreement, was former Israeli PM, Bibi Netanyahu. He openly wanted Iran to be under economic sanctions to make it harder for it to arm Israel's enemies among its neighbors. But now the ultimate result of that has arrived: Iran attacking Israel.  Bibi's campaign has come home to roost.

Barkley Rosser

The American Right Schmoozes Hungary's Orban

 Fox News's biggest star, Tucker Carlson, is broadcasting this week from Budapest where a political festival is happening under the aegis of Hungarian leader, Victor Orban.  As observers have noted, Orban has engaged in a gradual process of turning Hungary from a functioning EU democracy into an authoritarian state that maintains a veneer of democracy. Crucial to this is control over most of the media as well as the judiciary. His actions have put him in a running conflict with the EU's leaders, but he avoids pushing them too hard as EU financial aid to Hungary amounts to about 4% of its GDP, a lot.

Carlson claims that Orban is admirable and apparently a role model for the US for three reasons: his defense of western civilization, his defense of the family, and his innovations that improve democracy.  It would look that the first is based on his strong opposition to immigration from Muslim nations.  The second is supposedly due to the birth rate in Hungary having recently risen, although it remains below those of most other Eastern European nations. Carlson has made less of a fuss about it, but this also would seem to be based as well on his anti-LGBTQ attitudes and policies.

As for democracy, this is the one that is scary, looking like a blatant misrepresentation similar to the sorts of things we see the GOP doing in the US, spreading the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, with many state governments passing voter suppression laws and even making it possible for state legislatures to overturn election results. This all seems to be part of a plan to have Trump seize power in 2024, even if he loses the election. Yeah, anti=democracy is democracy!

I note one other thing beyond the suppression of media and judiciary that has happened in Hungary under Orban. This is his driving out of Hungary the Central European University, founded in 1991 by George Soros.  Orban has engaged in a smear campaign against Soros, accusing him of being both a Nazi and a Communist, neither of which he ever was, founder of the Open Societies Foundation. But his anti-Semitic screeds have been gleefully picked up by GOPsters in the US who also like to  focus on Soros as a super bad guy supposedly funding all Dems in the US.  Oh, we really should not be surprised that Carlson and other US rightists are really getting into Victor Orban.

Barkley Rosser

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The absolute general law of capitalist accumulation is what "our pamphleteer" overlooked..

Our pamphleteer overlooks two things:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labour power at its disposal.

This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation:

As a result of the introduction of machinery, a mass of workers is constantly being thrown out of employment, a section of the population is thus made redundant; the surplus product therefore finds fresh labour for which it can be exchanged without any increase in population and without any need to extend the absolute working-time.

Any questions?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

What Does Vaccine Effectiveness Mean?

 When technical specialists adopt an everyday word, they often give it a meaning that differs from its everyday use.  This can be misleading for nonspecialists, especially when little effort is made to explain the difference.  A well known example is “significance”, which means one thing when used in statistical work and another when it just denotes whether something is important.

Let’s look at another example, vaccine “effectiveness”.  What do people most want to know about the coronavirus vaccines?  How much protection they give you against the risk of getting infected with the virus, right?  And how much protection they give against more severe symptoms, such as those requiring hospitalization or resulting in long Covid.  When public health authorities throw out numbers about vaccine effectiveness, that’s probably how most people interpret them.

But that’s not what effectiveness means in medical research.  When pharmaceutical companies or public health outfits conduct effectiveness tests, they assemble and compare two groups, a treatment and a control (or multiple treatment groups with different protocols).  The treatment group gets the vaccine, the control group doesn’t.  Who gets assigned to which group is determined randomly, and participants don’t know which one they’re in.  (The controls get injected with a placebo.)  Then they go about their life, monitored to see if they get infected or not.  Vaccine effectiveness is a ratio, the fraction of the control group that gets infected divided by the corresponding fraction of the treatment group; it’s a ratio of two ratios.  You can also calculate effectiveness within subgroups, like treatments-over-65 and controls-over-65.  If the trial is conducted properly, the samples are representative and large and the public health context, including the virus variant, is stable, you can generalize effectiveness in the samples to the population as a whole.

Now notice a subtle difference in language.  The everyday use of “effectiveness” is effectiveness against the virus.  The research use is effectiveness relative to the control group.  This is immense, but widely misunderstood and seldom explained.

Here’s a numerical example.  Suppose a typical unvaccinated person going about life in a typical way faces a 1% risk of getting infected with Covid over the course of a month.  Suppose also that a vaccine is introduced with 95% effectiveness, as that term is used in medical research.  This means that a vaccinated person exposed to the same risk factors would have only a .05% chance of getting infected during the same time period.

Next, imagine that a new virus variant appears, combined with more relaxed public behavior—more indoor gathering, less masking.  Let’s say that an unvaccinated person now has a 5% monthly risk of infection.  If the vaccine is equally effective against the new variant, our typical vaccinated person now has a .25% risk of infection.  The numerator and denominator have both risen fivefold, but the effectiveness ratio of treatment vs control is unchanged.  Suppose further that the vaccine loses effectiveness against the new variant; it is now just 40% rather than 95%.  40% of 5% is 2%, the new monthly infection risk of those who have been vaccinated.

Effectiveness in the research sense has fallen from 95% to 40% from the first scenario to the second, smaller but still noticeably positive, but the risk of infection faced by someone who has been vaccinated in the second scenario is greater than the risk faced by someone unvaccinated in the first.

These numbers were made up, and of course the notion of a typical individual is a gross oversimplification, but the point applies to the current situation.  We now have vaccines against the coronavirus, and we also have a new, much more transmissible variant.  Effectiveness as researchers understand it has fallen, perhaps to about 40% for those vaccinated more than four months ago.  It’s still very important to get vaccinated, since it reduces both the risk of infection and the risk of infecting others relative to not being vaccinated, but even so you may well be at greater risk of infection now than you were a year ago before the vaccines were introduced.

The bottom line: vaccine effectiveness measures the risk faced by vaccinated individuals compared to those who aren’t vaccinated.  If the risk rises for the second group it rises for the first, even more if effectiveness is also falling.