The Ouroboros of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall

In the third volume of Capital, Marx explains, using a formula, how there’s a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The numerator is the surplus value (s), and the denominator is the total capital (C) invested. This total capital is the sum of variable capital (v), or wage labour, plus constant capital (c), or money spent on the means of production (machines, equipment, raw materials, etc.–Marx, page 317). The quotient of s over C (or s over c + v) is the rate of profit. If constant capital rises, the denominator rises while the surplus value doesn’t, and there is a fall in the rate of profit.

Sometimes, in order to gain a (however temporary) competitive advantage, a company will invest in higher technology (i.e., new machines) to boost production. This means a rise in constant capital as against surplus value, resulting in a lower rate of profit.

Since value in a commodity comes from the socially-necessary labour time put into it, having a greater involvement of machinery in production means less human labour is going into it, so less value and a lower price. The lower price means people buy this company’s commodity more than that of the competition, hence this company’s competitive advantage.

Still, this advantage is only temporary, since the competition will learn of the new machinery/technology and will soon be compelled to use it in their own production, and the price of all commodities in this branch of industry will go down. With the lowering of the cost price will come a fall in the rate of profit.

Now, the fall in the rate of profit is only a tendency, happening gradually over a period of decades. It isn’t a straight, diagonal drop; there are many small bumps upward that accompany the overall drop. These upward bumps are caused by countervailing factors in the capitalist class’s attempts to reverse the fall in the rate of profit. These countervailing factors include such things as opening up branches in foreign countries, particularly in the Third World, for the sake of exploiting cheap labour.

Nonetheless, the fall in the rate of profit is never fully reversed, and the result of the unemployed and underemployed (because machines are gradually replacing them) not having the money to buy so many commodities means there is overproduction. This problem snowballs into the economic crises that plague us every ten to fifteen years.

Though Marx predicted that one crisis too many would result in a socialist revolution, crises don’t stop capitalists from being capitalists. For all of the blather we hear from right-wing libertarians that the “free market” is antithetical to the state, we Marxists know that the capitalist (not the “corporatist“) class always has used and always will use the state to further their interests. Hence, the bailing out of the banks by Bush, Obama, and Trump, and Keynesian economics‘ use of government intervention and spending to prevent or mitigate economic crises from 1945-1973.

So in these crises, we see a rise in the money of the ruling class along with the further immiseration of the poor. Along with that contradiction come others: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) can be accompanied by a rise in the mass of profit; and the TRPF results from the temporary rise in profits as a result of those boosts in production from the early improvements in machinery/technology.

Thus, the rising vs falling of profits, as well as the accumulation of wealth vs immiseration of the poor, are to be understood in terms of dialectics. If, Dear Reader, you have been following my posts on the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail to represent dialectically meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which in turn is symbolized by the serpent’s coiled body.

So, as profits go up temporarily with boosts in production for particular businesses against their competition, we see a movement along the serpent’s body towards its head. We see similar movements towards the head when companies try to offset the TRPF by keeping wages down, intensifying worker exploitation, ensuring a sizeable reserve army of labour, imperialist inroads into foreign markets, etc.

Still, the reaching of the serpent’s head biting its tail will inevitably come, and the bitten tail of an economic crisis will come. The working of our way to an economic recovery is the movement from the bitten tail to the middle of the coiled body of the ouroboros; then the irresistible temptation to raise profits through increases in constant capital will lower the value of products through a lesser proportion of variable capital, and a move toward the biting head will come again. The cycle, a downward cycle leading to worse and worse crises, always repeats itself.

So, when is that ‘one crisis too many’ going to happen?

The socialist revolutions of the twentieth century happened in backward, pre-industrialized, Third World countries, not in the developed West of Marx’s predictions, where the flourishing of the productive forces were supposed to bring forth such abundance that communist society would be possible. Instead, the scheming capitalist class has figured out ingenious methods to adapt capitalism and help it survive even the most apocalyptic of crises.

As David Harvey said, ‘Capital is not a fixed magnitude!! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.”‘ (Harvey, page 262)

With the Great Depression came FDR’s New Deal and the beginning of the dominance of Keynesian government interventions to save the capitalist system from itself. Many desperate people at the time were considering communism. A lot of people confuse the ensuing post-war capitalist accommodations (strong unions, high taxes for the rich, extensive state regulation of the economy) with socialism (rather than associating it with social democracy and welfare capitalism). On the contrary, the idea was to keep the Western working class from sympathizing with Marxism-Leninism by making capitalism seem ‘more comfortable.’

At the same time, a ruthless anti-communist propaganda campaign was going on during the Cold War, manifested in such varying forms as the spurious writing of ‘historians’ like Robert Conquest, books like The Black Book of Communism, the CIA‘s infiltration of the media, Ayn Rand‘s hack writing, and the Austrian School of economics.

So many people don’t realize how thoroughly they have been brainwashed with anti-communist propaganda, and this is especially true of those who grew up during the Cold War years, having heard, as naïve, impressionable children, about how ‘evil’ and ‘tyrannical’ the Soviet Union and Mao‘s China were. It’s gotten so bad that many today equate any kind of political corruption with some form of communism.

The political right extended their notion of ‘toxic socialism’ to include any form of government intervention, particularly those involving social programs and welfare, but in the context of a capitalist state. Hence such right-wing libertarians as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, etc., started recommending a rollback of those left-leaning programs in favour of the “free market” around the time of the oil crises of the 1970s.

Whenever times are difficult, one tends to want to change from the hitherto dominant system; in the case of the 70s, it was a change from the Keynesian/welfare capitalism to what would become our neoliberal nightmare today. Sadly, far too few people were well-versed enough in history to know that what Rand, Friedman, Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek were espousing was simply a return to the Gilded Age capitalism that had started the chain of events that ultimately led to the Great Depression in the first place.

The changes were small at first, since the focus of the 1970s and 80s was dissolving the Soviet Union and making all the socialist states return to capitalism. Reagan busted unions in the form of firing striking air traffic controllers, and he and Thatcher cut taxes for the rich and deregulated the economy. None of this constituted the ‘small government’ that libertarians fetishize, since Reagan bloated military spending at the same time. It’s not ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government; it’s government for the rich vs for the people.

Meanwhile, the Soviet/Afghan War that Brzezinski, during the Carter administration, had goaded the USSR into fighting was bleeding the Soviet economy dry. This problem, combined with the weakness of Gorbachev, means the Western imperialists knew what was coming; hence George HW Bush’s speech on September 11th, 1990, that we were entering a “new world order”…not that of the conspiracy theorists, since “new world order” can mean many things to many people, but the heralding of our post-Cold War, neoliberal, “free market” era.

Funny thing: around this time came another recession, which should have reminded us of the unstable nature of capitalism, and of the TRPF. But the fall of global communism was seen as a triumph for ‘freedom and democracy’ over ‘tyranny and totalitarianism,’ even though Russians unsuccessfully tried three times to save/restore the Soviet system, first through a brief coup ousting Gorbachev, second through an uprising against the Russian parliament, repressed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and third through an attempt to elect the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in 1996, but through the Clinton administration’s machinations, the extremely unpopular Yeltsin was reelected.

Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing?

Polls have since consistently shown that not only Russians but also East Europeans and East Germans, in large numbers if not majorities, have been nostalgic about the socialist systems of government that they lost over three decades ago. While things were generally bad throughout the twentieth century (and obviously throughout all of history, for that matter), if you were paying attention, Dear Reader, you’d have noticed that things started to get really…really shitty around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Without much of a major socialist alternative in the world to challenge global capitalism, the neoliberals knew they could do anything they wanted…to anybody. Accordingly, Clinton introduced NAFTA, he gutted welfare, ended the Glass-Steagall legislation that many think was a huge factor causing the 2008 financial crisis, enacted the Telecommunications Act that allowed mergers and acquisitions in American media, leading to most of it being owned by only six corporations, and had NATO bomb Kosovo, leaving a huge US military base there.

9/11 was a dream come true to defence contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin, since the US needed a new enemy, after the fall of communism, to justify the inflated budget of the military-industrial complex. Such is the logic, however diabolical, of capitalism: production and sales have to be kept up to counteract the TRPF. World peace? Ecological health? Social justice? All of these things be damned if they disrupt the steady flow of profit. Opposing those good things, for the sake of profit, may be evil, but it isn’t irrational.

The promotion of perpetual war, against Al Qaeda and ISIS, and threats of war against Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, has come to such a point that the American army has become a huge refuge for the unemployed, all for the sake of keeping defence contractors’ profits up. Not that the ruling class cares about the needs of the unemployed, of course.

What is particularly galling about not only the 2008 financial crisis–the worst since the Great Depression–but also the current financial crisis, surely an outright economic meltdown, is that while millions of people are being plunged into poverty, homelessness, and despair, the ruling class is doing better and better. The billionaire class grew tremendously in the 2010s, while for the rest of us the economy only ever so slowly pulled itself out of the mire. The same has been happening over this past year.

This is what I mean when I speak of the ouroboros of the TRPF: the problem moves in an endless downward spiral. There’s the reckless, unrestrained pursuit of profit, whose rate falls, resulting in a crisis (movement along the serpent’s body to its biting head). The crisis plunges us all into misery, but the capitalist class is bailed out by the bourgeois state instead of punished for its excesses, so it’s free to resume its rapacious pursuit of profit (movement from the serpent’s bitten tail along its coiled body towards its biting head once again). There is no learning from mistakes, only continued, unchecked greed.

This lack of learning, however, doesn’t mean the capitalist class isn’t getting nervous about the rising anger of the people. Our overlords have used one devious tactic after another to distract us and goad us into fighting with each other instead of fighting them. These tactics range from resorting to fascism (Bolsonaro, the far-right in Ukraine, Anez in Bolivia, Trump’s tendencies, etc.) to exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to isolate (lockdowns) and alienate people from one another (social distancing) on the one hand, and to generate profits from it (the sale of masks and repeated vaccinations) on the other.

Regardless of where we, as leftists, stand on the coronavirus controversies (yet another way for the ruling class to divide us)–Do we believe it’s real, or a rebranding of the flu?–we should at least agree that the capitalist class and their media are exploiting the issue for their own private gain. From Pharma man to ‘farmer,’ Bill Gates, who has no background in medicine, way too much money, and therefore way too much influence over the WHO, CDC, etc. shouldn’t be trusted. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are losing their jobs (and with that, their already-shitty-as-it-is medical insurance), their homes, and their already teetering mental health.

Are we going to allow yet another movement along the ouroboros’s body until it reaches its biting head again? Will this or the next crisis lead to “the Great Reset” of what suspiciously sounds like a return to some form of feudalism, or will it lead to a socialist revolution? This bullshit stops when we all put our feet down and say, “Enough!”

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