The BBC programme was called ‘Masters of Money’ and was ostensibly all about money but there was nothing said about Marx’s theory of money, which is fundamental to explaining the current economic crisis.
For mainstream economics money is essentially just paper that can be used to exchange commodities. Provided it is not issued in too high a quantity it will maintain its value and is useful for this purpose. Already we can see a problem. What is the intrinsic value of pieces of paper or metal coins? If it had an intrinsic value its issue would hardly be a problem. It becomes a problem because paper money cannot fulfil all the functions of money precisely because it does not have an intrinsic value.
The massive expansion of credit makes credit too look like money in that it is used to exchange commodities. However at a certain point people want paid with money and not yet more credit. When this happens credit stops being given to some people and we have a ‘credit crunch’ such as developed in the latest financial crisis when banks refused to lend to each other and Governments had to step in.
For Marx money is itself a commodity with an intrinsic value because it too is the product of human labour. Historically it has taken the form of gold. This is why commodity exchange is an exchange of equals because when money is exchanged for a commodity the money is either gold directly or indirectly if it is convertible into gold. The end of such convertibility does not abolish exchange being one of equivalents. Just as credit cannot become real money and this is proved during a credit crunch so paper money is exposed when it is over-issued and creates inflation and when in a crisis capitalist investors look to put their money into something that will preserve the real value of their wealth.
In fact this occurs during booms when speculation on one type of asset after another leads to bubbles – in high-tech company stocks, houses, commodities and now certain government bonds. The price of oil is one barometer of this activity.
Thus just as the massive expansion of credit is not a solution to the problem of capitalist crisis and the contradiction between a limited market and profitable production so also is the printing of money through quantitative easing not a solution. Yet according to mainstream economics there is no reason why printing money should not be a solution. The proof of the pudding is that while quantitative easing has prevented collapse it has not abolished the crisis.
Many companies are sitting on piles of cash including US multinationals holding money outside the US and so evading US taxes. There is an ‘investment strike’ because of the recession which has created unemployment, falling incomes, debt crises for many countries and austerity which promises not a recovery but continued recession. All this is worse in Ireland because it is not mainly the policy of austerity which is the problem but a massive overhang of debt, which must otherwise be repaid, and shrinkage in demand due to lower wages, unemployment and emigration.
We are back to ‘solutions’ that are based on more investment and higher wagers but which ignore that it is the system based on profit which is the cause of the problems.
Two other issues occupied the last part of the BBC programme. The first was whether capitalism would last more or less forever or would be temporary and replaced by something else. The programme accepted that Marx’s analysis of capitalism had a lot of sense to it but it did not, to no one’s surprise I am sure, think that he had any alternative. In fact the very scarcity of his views on this was held up a number of times while recognising that no one else had much of a clue either.
This was more than a little disingenuous. The programme started off with shots of the Berlin Wall being demolished and of pictures of Red Square in Moscow and of Stalin. The presenter recalled that she was at university at the time the Berlin Wall came down and one thing she was aware of was that ‘communism’ had definitively failed. The programme she said would therefore not look at what Marx had to say about communism. To return at the end of the programme and say that Marx had no alternative while excluding what he did say about an alternative is, well, not exactly fair.
Also unreasonable was the nonsense that Marx, although he had been poor, had towards the latter years of his life become a bit bourgeois. This seemed to consist of such things as worrying over the future of his children and taking walks in the park in quite nice areas of London. What a traitor! He hadn’t even been down a coal mine, unlike the presenter who went down one for the programme.
That leaves me a bit conflicted as I worry over my children, like nice walks in the park (sometimes) but have been down a coal mine (once).
More importantly the programme argued that Marx had no alternative and implied that this explains the otherwise puzzling phenomenon, gleefully expressed by ex-Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, that many people were not flocking to the banner of Marxism. The latter is a fact, so is it the result of the former?
In an earlier post on the defeat of the opposition to the austerity referendum I asserted that the Left and the working class generally did not have a real alternative, as opposed to some theoretical one, and that this was fundamentally why many workers had voted for something that was against their interests and which some knew to be the case. The programme actually expressed very well what is meant by an alternative, if I recall more or less accurately, it said that this would be when ‘a compelling alternative would appear.’ What is this ‘compelling alternative’? If we are talking about the replacement of the political economy of capitalism we are also talking about its replacement by the political economy of the working class. What is this?
Marx described the alternative to capitalism this way:
“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.”
The beginning of an alternative to capitalism arises only when the working class takes action, however small, and is not limited to creation of worker owned and controlled production. The creation of its own organisations to defend itself against capitalism also foreshadows its future control over the whole of society. The creation of its own workers party is the pinnacle of it being conscious of its tasks. Many of the political organisations claiming the banner of the working class and the mantle of Marx replace the centrality of the working class itself with calls upon the state, the capitalist state, to take the action only the working class can take and only which if it does take, can it be considered any step towards socialism.
So the BBC programme on the alternative of Karl Marx got his essential teachings wrong but unfortunately, through empirical impressions, got the current weakness of the socialist alternative right. The programme itself however is an indication that this alternative is as necessary as it ever was.