James Heartfield and Me (debating Marx on Facebook)

Jun 30th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

James Heartfield's response and rebuttal to this blog was published on July 1st, 2015 under the simple and obvious title James Heartfield Responds.


MarxI recently spent several hours debating Marx (specifically Andrew Kliman's interpretation of Marx's crisis theory) on Doug Henwood's Facebook wall. The person on the other side of the screen turned out to be Zero Books author James Heartfield. His books “The European Union and the End of Politics” and “Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” were published in 2013 and 2012 respectively.

In an effort to turn a Facebook debate into something a bit more substantial I offered to summarize our debate here on the Zero Books blog and give Heartfield a chance to respond. As you'll discover this summary of our disagreement ends up being my critique of Heartfield's objections to Andrew Kliman.

[Andrew Kliman's interpetation of Marx's theory of crisis, an interpretation in line with the Temporal Single System Interpretation wherein Marx is read to be a consistent and coherent theorist of Capitalism rather than a thinker whose ideas need to be corrected by Keynes or other economists, informs his books “The Failure of Capitalist Production,” and “Reclaiming Marx's Capital.” Kliman has also summarized some of his empirical findings at Truthdig in a series of essays entitled “Are Corporations Really Hogging Worker's Wages” and “Were Top Executives Really Hogging Workers' Wages.”]

Here are the two disagreements or objections James Heartfield presented yesterday as he critiqued Andrew Kliman.

1. Heartfield's first objection was really a disagreement with a strawman version of Kliman. This 'Kliman' apparently believes that contradictions in Capitalism lead to a permanent crisis. Kliman himself does not argue that Capitalism will enter into a permanent crisis if by “permanent” one reads “terminal,” nor does Kliman see any long standing economic crisis as inevitable due to the logic of Capitalism itself.
In his book “The Failure of Capitalist Production” Kliman wrote “That Marx regarded capitalism's economic crisies as transitory, though unavoidable and recurrent[...] the common belief that he predicted the collapse of capitalism, is yet another belief for which evidence is lacking. Mandel, a prominent advocate of the view that Marx predicted a collapse of the system, acknowledged that no textual support for this claim can be found in his presentation of the LTFRP or elsewhere in volume III of Capital...”

Heartfield's response to this is to claim that by suggesting there was no boom in profits after the recession of the 70s Kliman is arguing for a permanent crisis. He has a long way to go in proving this point as the difference between crisis and a lack of a boom seems fairly simple to understand. To use an analogy to clarify, one can argue that a person has never fully recovered from pneumonia without arguing that the person has remained on his death bed. It's possible to suffer from diminished lung capacity, low energy, after failing to fully recover from pneumonia while not still suffering from a lung infection.

To clarify further, Kliman does not argue that capitalism necessarily never produces a boom, but that in the specific case of the 70s recession not enough capital was destroyed in order to bring on a boom.

2. Heartfield argues that Kliman ignores one of Marx's main ideas, namely that Capitalists are motivated to innovate the means of production in order to devalue labor power by bringing down the costs of subsistence. He makes this claim because, according to Heartfield, a decline in the rate of profit is always accompanied by a decline in wages. If Kliman is saying wages haven't declined and that the rate of profit had declined then he is, according the Heartfield, ignoring Marx's arguments.
Now, before I debunk Heartfield's objection I'll summarize a bit from Capital, Volume One, Chapter 12. What Marx explains in this chapter is how suplus value is rendered from labour and what prerequisites must be achieved if the Capitalist is going to be able to make a profit by paying the labourer less than the labourer produces in a given working day. One necessary prerequisite is a lower cost of living and also a faster mode of production. In fact, these two necessary conditions for exploitation go hand in hand. What's obvious is that if it takes ten hours to produce the commodities a worker needs to survive and if that worker is employed in labour for ten hours every day there will be no profit. What's needed is for those goods to take less time to produce so that the value embodied in those goods can be taken care of with only a portion of the working day so that the rest of the day can be turned toward producing a surplus or turned toward profit.

This prerequisite is necessary for the total system of Capitalism to function. It must already be the case that the majority of industries are able to exploit labour if capitalism is to exist.

But, in Chapter 12, Marx describes how, even after the cost of the commodities needed by the worker to survive is low enough for there to be exploitation, the individual Capitalist would be motivated to speed up his own production lines further and how this motivation would occur in every sector and not just the sectors responsible for producing domestic beer, baseball hats, clown figurines, baked beans and other accoutrements of the working classes. Marx writes:

Let the value of the means of production used up in each article be sixpence. Under these circumstances, each article costs one shilling: sixpence for the value of the means of production, and sixpence for the value newly added in working with those means. Now let some one capitalist contrive to double the productiveness of labour, and to produce in the working day of 12 hours, 24 instead of 12 such articles. The value of the means of production remaining the same, the value of each article will fall to ninepence, made up of sixpence for the value of the means of production and threepence for the value newly added by the labour. […] He will therefore sell them above their individual but under their social value, say at tenpence each. By this means he still squeezes an extra surplus-value of one penny out of each. This augmentation of surplus-value is pocketed by him, whether his commodities belong or not to the class of necessary means of subsistence that participate in determining the general value of labour-power. Hence, independently of this latter circumstance, there is a motive for each individual capitalist to cheapen his commodities, by increasing the productiveness of labour.
According to Marx it is the aim of achieving a profit by beating the socially necessary labour time and thereby beating the competition with slightly lower prices that drives Capitalists to innovate and speed up production and thereby drive down the value of the commodities he is producing. This motivation is separate from his need to lower the value of labour-power in order to expand the part of the working day turned toward profit. Further, there will be times when many processes of commodity production have sped up while the process of producing domestic beer has remained constant. That is, it is NOT necessary for wages to always fall as the average speed of production increases or the average value of labor time falls. Labour-power (also known as the person with the potential to work, or the employee) has its own value based on the time needed to produce his articles of subsistence, but not everything in the economy ends up on the worker's dinner table or on his mantle to be admired

What this means is that there is no necessary reason why overall prices or the average price can't drop while wages remain constant.

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