The Falling Rate of Profit
The financial world is a mysterious one. It appears that through trading stock, advancing credit, or swapping currencies profit can appear out of thin air- that is, money can be turned into more money just by clicking some buttons on a computer or placing a call to a stockbroker. Indeed much of the confusion and mystique we attach to the dizzying world of finance comes from this illusion of money growing from money.
This is inherently abstract. To most of us, money is something we earn from performing concrete labor. And we use this money to buy real commodities- actual physical objects or services that represent labor done by other people out there in the economy. For us, money (M) is an abstract step of measuring value that exists between two very real concrete things: the labor we perform (C) and the labor of the commodities we buy (C). C-M-C
But for the capitalist, this realm of the concrete is not the goal. It is the abstract power of money that is important. To turn money into more money (M-M1) is the goal of capitalist production. For productive capitalists (capitalists that generate profit by selling commodities) the concrete labor process that creates commodities is an annoyance along the way to making a profit. They thus seek to minimize the time it takes to make a commodity so that they can turn their commodities back into money as quickly as possible.
For financial capitalists there is no annoying stage of concrete labor. They move their money to one place and it magically turns into more money. So why then, aren’t all capitalists in finance? Why do they bother producing commodities anyway?
The answer to that should be obvious. Without commodities and human labor to make them we couldn’t even have an economy. All value in the economy eventually relates back to the labor process. And though financial capitalists may never see a worker or set foot on a shop-floor, the profit they make is ultimately, in one way or another, dependent on the value produced by productive capitalists, whether through interest on loans, stock value, rent, etc.
But if we let financial capital carry on in its own mad way, turning money into more money through increasingly exuberant orgies of investment it is not hard to see how this can create temporary bubbles of speculation. Symbols of value- credit, mortgages, even money itself- can be traded back and forth assuming prices way above the actual value of the asset until the financial sector finds itself awash in ‘fictitious capital’. This is a fancy word for symbols of value that are divorced from any real value- any real connection to the labor process- in the way an actual commodity is.
But if you have your thinking cap on you might already see that we can’t blame crisis solely on financial capital. The monstrous bubbles of fictitious values it creates are only a problem if there isn’t enough value in the economy to back up all those symbols of value. We must also look to the productive side of the capitalist class and ask “why isn’t there enough value in the economy to back up all that fictitious value?” How come there aren’t enough wages to pay off those mortgages? Why does the government have to go into debt in order to bailout investment firms and banks?
To answer these questions we need some theory about the rate of accumulation- the rate at which real value is produced in a capitalist society. The theory of the falling rate of profit is such a theory, and it is this theory that will be the topic of this video after many mentions and sneak-previews in other videos. The theory of the falling rate of profit argues that the basic way in which value is created in a capitalist society contains a basic contradiction which destabilizes accumulation. If not offset by some countervailing influence this will cause capitalism to go into crisis.
The basic argument is actually pretty simple. If capitalists see the concrete stage of commodity production (C) as an annoying step in between an initial investment (M) and profit (M1) it is in their interest to decrease the amount of time spent in this concrete stage while getting the most possible value out of it. This is basically what it means to increase efficiency. Workers produce more commodities per labor-hour, thus increasing the physical productivity relative to the initial investment.
The problem is that the more efficient capitalists are at producing commodities the less those commodities are worth. And this is simply because increased efficiency means less labor input per commodity and therefore less value, meanwhile more spending on labor-saving, efficient machines. So the very actions that capitalists take to generate more profit create a falling rate of profit.
This theory, that increased efficiency drives down the rate of profit has aspects that are both intuitively commonsensical and aspects that seem illogical. It makes intuitive sense that the more there is of a commodity the less it is worth. It doesn’t seem to make sense that capitalists would continue to behave in ways that drove down their own rate of profit. Let’s look more closely at this process and try to unravel the mystery.
The expansion of value is the essence of capitalism. Capitalists exist to turn raw materials, tools and labor power into commodities of greater value, to sell them for money and then to start the process all over again the next day. Competition between capitalists creates a race to lower prices relative to rival capitalists. But if price were ever lowered below the actual value of a commodity capitalists couldn’t make a profit at all. The only way to lower the price of a commodity and thus out-compete a rival is to produce something more cheaply than a rival capitalist. How is this done? -By increasing the productivity of labor.
Remember, commodities’ values are equal to their socially-neccesary labor time- the amount of time it takes, in general, for a commodity to be produced under average conditions. Let’s say you are a capitalist who makes widgets and the average firm produces 10 widgets an hour per worker. But your firm only produces 5. In order to make the same amount of profit as your competitors you would have to sell your widgets at a higher price. But you can’t get away with charging more for your widgets because people will just go buy from someone else who can make them cheaper. You will be forced to get your workforce to achieve average productivity or else go out of business. You will be forced to achieve the socially necessary labor time.
Now, if you can get your workers to produce 15 widgets an hour then you are producing at under the socially necessary labor time. This means your can sell your widgets at slightly less than the average cost, outselling your rivals and getting more profit per widget than them. Whereas other firms’ widgets are worth one tenth of an hour of labor time (a worker makes 10 widgets an hour) your widgets are worth a fifteenth of an hour. But you can charge anywhere from and eleventh to a fifteenth and still undersell your rivals.
How do you achieve more efficient production? Obviously you can make your workers work harder. But you will encounter some opposition if you try to get them to work too hard. After all, workers are people with a certain level of tolerance for their own exploitation. We can assume that all of your rivals are making their workers work equally hard. Your only other option is technical innovation. If you invest in better machines, new machines, fancy computers, new conveyor belts, etc. you can make your workers more productive. And this is exactly what capitalists do all the time. This is the motor behind the dazzling technological dynamism of a capitalist society.
Once you’ve achieved a more efficient production system other capitalists are going to want to do the same. It is hard to keep technological advances secret for long. Once all of your competitors are producing 15 widgets an hour per worker the socially necessary labor time of a widget goes down. Now all widgets are worth only 1/15th of an hour. The value of the commodity has fallen, and with it the amount of profit that can be made from it. The actions of individuals competing to make a profit by producing at less than the socially necessary labor time, eventually lowers the socially necessary labor time itself, thus undermining the aggregate profit rate. (repeat this)
The rate of profit is the total profit over the total price of inputs: profit/inputs. We call the profit s for surplus value- the amount of additional value added by labor, over and above the money paid to workers for their wages. We divide the inputs into two categories: wages paid to workers, and expenditures on pre-produced commodities like machines, raw materials, factories, etc. At the time of buying one of these pre-produced commodities the capitalist pays a price representing the value of the commodity. This value is then transfered onto the final product, but no additional value can be transferred by a machine or raw material, so we call the value of these pre-produced commodities “constant” and denote them with “c”. Since the wages paid to workers are not representative of a specific amount of value that will be produced per worker, that is, since there is no way of knowing how much value a worker will produce, we call their value “variable” and denote this with “v”.
We can then translate profit/inputs into s/c+v. This is the standard equation for the rate of profit (though you will sometimes see it written as s/v/c/v.) From this equation it is easy to see that an increase in investment in either c or v must correspond to a rise in the amount of surplus value in order for the rate of profit to rise or stay the same. If s stays the same while c or v increases then the rate of profit will fall.
In our example of capitalists reducing the socially necessary labor time of widgets we saw that although some capitalists gained a temporary advantage over others through increased efficiency, ultimately the same amount of workers produced the same amount of value each hour. The value was just spread out over more widgets. In terms of our equation s/c+v this means that surplus value does not rise just because physical output rises.
What does rise is c. In order to increase the efficiency of output capitalists had to spend more on machines and raw materials. This means that the denominator in the equation is increasing. And this means a falling rate of profit.
So when people say “it doesn’t make sense that capitalists would invest in ways that drove down their rate of profit” you can now explain to them the following 3 points:
1. We see the price of commodities fall all of the time due to increased efficiency. Notice the plummeting price of digital technologies, once adjusted for inflation. This means that increased productivity does not mean increased value. The same amount of workers are producing the same amount of value. This value is just spread out over more, cheaper commodities. But for some “mysterious” reason capitalists keep racing to pump out more and more cheaper commodities, even though it ultimately undermines the rate of profit.
2. Capitalists’ decisions are not centrally coordinated decisions made for the long-term benefit of the capitalist class. They are totally anarchic, the result of thousands of individual capitalists all competing against one another for temporary, short-term market advantage. The immediate, on-the-ground pressure on an individual capitalist is to increase output per worker to achieve maximum possible efficiency without regard to the effect on aggregate values or market saturation.
3. Capitalist do not operate from a conscious labor theory of value. To them, increased physical output means increased profits. This confusion of physical output with value is referred to as “physicalism”. It is the same theoretical error that confuses many of the critics of the falling rate of profit like Nobuo Okishio and John Roemer. Both capitalists and their bourgeois theorists are stuck in a theoretical quagmire where they think the value of commodities stays the same regardless of how efficient the production process is, while it is quite obvious to any lay observer that the value of commodities is constantly decreasing with rising productivity.
There are however some counter-vailing tendencies against a falling rate of profit and it is to these counter-vailing tendencies that we will turn next.
Again, if you have your thinking cap on you may have noticed that this entire thesis of the falling rate of profit is predicated on one assumption: that capitalists will increase their investment in constant capital (c) relative to variable capital (v). The ratio of c to v (c/v) is usually called the “organic composition of capital” though sometimes you will hear it referred to as the “value composition of capital”. It should be clear by now that if the organic composition of capital rises that the rate of profit falls. But if the organic composition of capital shrinks- if v rises relative to c- this should counteract the tendency toward a falling rate of profit.
Indeed this was a major strategy in response to the crisis of the early 70’s in which the west found itself with an overaccumulation of constant capital in the form of large factories and other industrial infrastructure. By an increased use of subcontracting in the 3rd world firms were able to move production overseas to take advantage of cheaper, easily exploited labor. In many parts of Asia and Latin America there was no need to increase efficiency via constant increases in technology because the labor force, displaced from their rural means of production through deregulation in trade, was so vulnerable and exploitable.
While such investment strategies stem the falling rate of profit, they do so by expanding capitalist social relations into new areas on the periphery of capital. In so doing they don’t resolve the contradictions implied in the falling rate of profit, they merely displace these contradictions in space by bringing more people and spaces into the system. In doing so all sorts of disequilibriums are created in the fabric of capitalist space. The eventual rise to economic power of some areas of the periphery has much to do with the current disequilibrium of international capitalist relations.
A second way of stemming the falling rate of profit has to do with decreasing the value of constant capital. If the race to improve efficiency is cheapening all commodities we can expect the costs of inputs like machines and raw materials to fall as well. This allows capitalists to increase the physical amount of technology they use without increasing the value of constant capital. Unlike the previous “fix” which displaced crisis in space, this “fix” is part of the internal logic of capital and, some argue, could very well be a permanent fix.
What should be added though is that many production technologies involve very large investments in fixed capital. Fixed capital is constant capital that is fixed in space like roads, bridges, damns, factories, skyscrapers, enormous machines, etc. An enormous investment in fixed capital commits the investor to the long term use of this fixed capital, preventing the capitalist from switching to new, cheaper constant capital. The turnover time of fixed capital investments can be several years to several decades, as the capitalist waits for the cost of a new building or road to pay itself off. Thus the “fix” provided by the falling value of constant capital is neutralized in the case of fixed capital investments. The longer an industry has been around, the more automated production tends to be, so there is a tendency toward increasing investments in fixed capital.
The problems of turnover time in fixed capital investments are often overcome through the credit system. By borrowing money for investments, or borrowing money in expectation of future revenues, capitalists can get the money they need now, instead of waiting decades for an investment to pay itself off. In this way the credit system creates a socially necessary turnover time which equalizes turnover time across industries allowing industries with massive fixed capital investments to stay competitive with more labor-intensive industries. This also means that the crisis of overproduction of constant capital and the subsequent falling rate of profit are displaced in time and transferred to the credit system.
And this takes us back to our starting point. If capital can make good on all of it’s credit- if it can turn all of its investments into real value, we are safe from crisis. But if capital can’t generate enough profit relative to its investments, if technological change destabilizes value creation in one way or another we get crisis in the form of bubbles of credit which can’t find value, massive factories which can’t make a profit, shelves of commodities that can’t be sold and masses of workers without jobs. The theory of the falling rate of profit provides a starting point for analyzing how all of these factors are inter-related. While there are countervailing tendencies away from a falling rate of profit, many of them are mere displacements of crisis which merely postpone crisis, bottling it up to breakout with increasing violence when it can no longer be contained. We must also remember that there is no centrally coordinating body in a capitalist society to manage investments in a way that stabilizes the rate of profit. We are almost ready to begin an analysis of the way these abstract forces have evolved historically to land us in our present state.
Limits to Capital, by David Harvey
Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, by Andrew Kliman
Class, Crisis and the State, by Erik Olin Wright
An Introduction the History of Crisis Theory, by Anwar Shaikh (from U.S. Capitalism in Crisis)