Monday, November 30, 2015

Under, Over, Sideways, and Down

1. Say that again?

2. It is supposed to be ever so apparent to Marxists, historical materialists, and the like,  that the apprehension, recognition, description, and demonstration of the law of value-- the law that commodities will exchange with each other in proportion to the labor time socially necessary for their reproduction-- is a law of capitalist production.  It is historical; specific to a certain organization, or mode, of production.  The law is  incapable of being recognized, that is to say critical analysis, until the law has become dominant; until it has seized society, the reproduction of human beings as social beings, by the throat, or the short and curlys,  in its ever expanding jaws and begun its spin; it's death spiral, like that of the crocodile seizing a goat. So Aristotle, as Marx notes, comes close, but no cigar.  We know why, don't we?

3. Except in establishing its dominance, its reign, the law of value, like the crocodile and the once upon a time goat, disappears; settles beneath the surface.

That's the thing, or more correctly, the relation.  At the very moment that this law determines social relations, becomes universal, it becomes transparent; invisible.  It's everywhere.  The production of social life takes place against the giant green screen that the law of value has become.  History disappears. Nobody sees it.

"Oh sure," the goat herd says, "there are crocodiles in the water.  There always have been crocodiles.  There will always be crocodiles.  It's natural.  I think we'll just creep down to the river and sneak a quick sip."  What's one goat, more or less, in a universe of goats?  Immaterial, unless you're the goat.  If you're the croc, dinner.

4a. From capital's  political economists we get one iteration or another of the perpetual sunshine of capitalism as in this, the relations of value, are the most natural of relations among people, even if not perfect.  These are the most satisfactory of relations for humans.  Sometimes they need to be massaged, manipulated, mitigated, curbed, regulated, but that's only because we human beings are imperfect creatures.  Capitalism is what has always been intended by god, or his son, or nature, or DNA, or the ancient wisdom of interplanetary visitors.

4b. From some of the "left" we get one iteration or another of the law of value as a silent "partner" to all eras of social production.  We get the value as unseen, unrecognized but still material force determining exchange, trade, relations between city and state in Greece, Rome, Liguria, Venice, pre- Ottoman Asia minor, pre-Columbian America.  Everything is, was, and will be determined by the law of value.  The "role" of socialists is to perfect the dictates of the law of value; to embrace its operation and make exchange orderly, rational. Planned.

5. Those who don't see much difference between those political economists in 4a and the political economists in 4b are considered to be outliers, or worse, cynics.  Well, as recent events in Greece have made so painfully clear to the most casual observer, being called a cynic by a bunch of fools isn't the worst thing.  Right Leo?  Right Sam?

What is missing from the assessment of our political economists?  Besides everything?  Just, I mean just this: that the law of value is an expression of the condition of labor.  That condition, or expression, or manifestation, or relation of social labor is specifically one where the only use the ability to labor has to the laborers is in its exchange for values necessary for its own subsistence.  Thus labor is constituted as the commodity labor-power; measured, as all commodities are, by time, and time is expressed as value, realizing that value only in its alienation, its surrender to commerce.

Reproduction of the value required for subsistence is the necessary labor-time, the wage; the balance of the laboring period is surplus labor-time.  All societies, and all production, claim and distribute this surplus labor-time.  The form of distribution unique to capitalism is the transfiguration of surplus labor-time as surplus value.

Social labor compelled and composed as a commodity, as value producing value, as an object for exchange, within which is the relation of exchange.   That relation is the means of production, the machinery for social reproduction, constituted also as commodities, as vehicles for exchange.

So we have our two signature, historically unique relations of capitalism.

We have labor constituted as commodity, a property that can be purchased, which property circumscribes an activity that is in fact not purchased but aggrandized as the activity is set to producing value.

We have the means of production constituted as commodities, as property, the value already embodied therein only accessible, only viable to the extent that the property can be used to extract surplus-value.  We have the means of production that can only transfer the previously aggrandized value through expanding value.

The law of value cannot regulate production, distribute labor-time, when 90 percent of economic activity is rural, individual, agricultural production and 90 percent of that agricultural production is required for the subsistence of the direct producers. 

6.  Short version: the law of value is not an invisible hand, a force of nature, or a genetic substance.  The law of value does not spawn capitalists and proletarians; owners of the means of production, and embodiers of labor-power.  The relations of proletarians to capitalists; of property to the condition of labor creates the law of value.

7. It is supposed to be so readily apparent from capital's nexus of existence in that specific exchange, that the determinant of capitalist production is the drive to expand the extraction and seizure of surplus labor-time, of surplus value.  All other considerations are secondary.  And it's supposed to be just as readily apparent that all limits, obstacles, barriers to capitalist production can be overcome, save the limit, barrier, obstacle capital creates for itself, through itself, in itself, by its need to preserve the means of production as capitalist property in order to expand the extraction of surplus value. 

Capital, then, is no system of equilibrium; nor a system seeking equilibrium.  It is a system of dynamic disequilibrum where imbalance, disproportion are no more obstructions than they are opportunities; where excess and scarcity are generated and regenerated.

It's supposed to be even more than apparent that this need to expand the portion of surplus-value drives the expansion of output.

Apparently, it's not so apparent, as those who don't know better, i.e. "left" political economists," continue to rattle on about "supply" and "demand" as if such categories have any meaning abstracted, as they always are, from the reproduction of capital, from the increment of the reproduction of capital, that is to say profit, and the rate of profit.

Even some who do know better, and who have demonstrated that they know much better,  somehow regard supply and demand as distinct from the successes and failures capital encounters on its road to reproduction.  We might be told, for example, something like this:

the notion that technical progress ( "progress" only has meaning in capital in the value of the components of production, so technical progress means a growing accumulation of value in the instruments relative to the value of the labor-power--s.a.) causes overproduction, creating too much output in relationship to demand, and forces companies to reduce prices,  is irredeemably flawed.    

and this:

Companies' decisions about how much output to produce are based on projection of demand for the output.  Since technical progress does not affect demand-- consumers don't care about production processes, just the function of the product, technical progress will not cause a company to increase production.

Well, technically not so. And it's more than a technical distinction. 

Firstly, "demand" has little enough to do with capital investment and output.  Every capitalist know that the size of the market, the existing demand, is greater than the output of his or her specific corporation.  The market can be stable, growing, or shrinking. .  The market for the transport of all commodities can be static for a period time, and yet railroad operators know that increasing the technical component through the purchase of more expensive but more efficient locomotives, capable of greater tractive effort with more precise adhesion control, consuming less fuel per ton-mile, with greater mean distances and times between out-of-service periods for repair, allows the railroad to reduce costs, achieve better utilization rates of rolling stock, haul greater tonnages with fewer locomotives and fewer crews and capture a greater portion of the composite surplus value, the composite profit available in the sector.

The production rates and masses of differing commodities are subject to these same considerations, and compulsions.  Semiconductor, aluminum ingot, oil, machine tool, radio production, container ship transport, all must increase the output of the "finished" commodity in order to circulate the value increasingly embodied in the technical apparatus.

If technical applications  reduce by 50 percent the time necessary for the production of a ton of steel from 2 hours to 1 hour, does the mill then increase output in a year, or shut-down after producing last year's quota, or maybe just a bit more than last year's quota?  The mill doesn't shut down. The capitalist can use that technical advantage to lower the price of that specific steel below that of steel from other less technically advanced mills, capturing greater market share and devaluing the competing capitals.

8.  The need to aggrandize greater masses and rates of surplus-value drives the change in the value composition of the capital deployed.  By reducing,  through the development of labor productivity, the time necessary for reproducing the value equivalent to the wage, larger portions of the work period are captured as surplus-value.  This is the "general curve" of capitalist accumulation, a curve that turns in on itself when the amassing of capital is overwhelmed by the decline in the rate of profit  which the accumulation itself has precipitated. 

At a critical juncture, the increased rate of surplus value is not increased enough.  It has become a high rate, a very high rate, but velocity is not acceleration, and acceleration, the increment is what counts.  Like an object approaching the speed of light, the acceleration decreases as the very mass increases. 

The accumulation of capital is the link between and the identity of overproduction and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

That's where we are now.  At the point of conjuncture, and identity, between overproduction of the means of production as capital and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

November 30, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Slow Boats To...

1. ...everywhere

 a) "Circulation," wrote Marx in Capital (volume 1), "sweats money from every pore."   Trade, after all, is the arena where profit and loss achieve a certain materiality even if only of the book entry type. It's not called exchange value for nothing.

Between 1995 and 2005, the average annual rate of growth (aarg) for world merchandise exports measured 7 percent, and  doubled the rate for global economic output.   Since 2011, the rate of growth for world trade has approached parity with that of global GDP, as both  have slowed to the 2.5 percent rate.

The accelerating growth of global trade over economic output was the result of greater integration of value chains, where companies and countries "assembled" themselves in networks, or stations, for providing design, raw materials, intermediate processes, penultimate fabrications, and final assemblies for the commodities of capitalism, from commercial airliners, to toothpaste.  Trade in the modern world follows production in the value chains.  Amateurs talk about "exports" and "imports."  Professionals talk "export, re-import; import, re-export."

 b) Capital intends the expansion of value.  That's not it's "purpose," no more than a psychopath can be said to have a "purpose."  That's its, capital's need, no less than that of a psychopath.  The "mechanism" for meeting this need is aggrandizement of living labor power as wage-labor; labor-power as a value, having use only in its exchange for an equivalent to the time, cost, of its own reproduction, which time, cost-- called the necessary labor time-- amounts to only a fraction of the total labor time.

The expansion of value is the elaboration of this mechanism; that is to say the accumulation of the means of production as capital, reducing, disproportionately, the necessary labor-time, thereby expanding the surplus labor-time.  The "unintended" result is the process by which value expands; that is to say the accumulation of the means of production.  Capital is really about the conversion of  the things of production into the relations of value.  Capital is the constitution of the means of production as value aggrandizing, value extracting, value-commanding, as the condition of labor.  

The expanded value embedded in the means of production  can only be circulated by being transferred through the labor process to an expanding mass of value of commodities.  Coincident with the decline in necessary labor-time-- in the time it takes to reproduce the equivalent of the wage-- and the increase in surplus labor-time,  the value relation within commodities is altered; the value relation in all of capital is altered.  Mass of profit increases; ratio of profit decreases, and then the entire artifice that profit is collapses.  Goes down the drain.  Disappears.  Sinks below the surface. 

Overproduction is always the overproduction of capital.  In the midst of the intense exploitation of labor power, as the result of the intense exploitation of labor power, labor power isn't exploited intensely enough. Circulation slows, and the bourgeoisie expend tremendous energy in the attempt to offset this slowing; enough to break a bead, all right, but it's  a bead of cold sweat.

 c) In 2014, the world maritime fleet grew 3.5 percent to a total of 89,464 vessels at 1.75 billion dead weight tons (dwt).  That growth was the lowest annual growth in a decade.  It was also the first time in 8 years that the average age of ships engaged in maritime trade increased as the entry of new ships was not matched by the retirement of older ships.  Despite the slow growth of 2014, and the slowing of growth since 2011, the maritime fleet has more than doubled its dead weight tonnage since 2004.

The disparity between the growth of maritime capacity and the growth of trade makes it appear as if the particular predicament of this particular sector of capital is the result of disproportion, the unevenness of capitalist production, the time lags among capitals and within capitalism; an imbalance between this capital and that capital.  Sure thing, capital lacks equilibrium and proportion, but it always lacks equilibrium; it always operates in disproportion.  That's how profit is distributed.

Saying capital lacks equilibrium is like telling me the bourgeoisie are "greedy," or too greedy.  If they weren't, they wouldn't be bourgeoisie.  If capital operated in balance, or toward a condition of equilibrium, it wouldn't be capitalism.

And we are dealing, after all, not with sectors, but with the global features of capitalism-- global trade, global maritime shipping; we apprehend global trade, global transport as they manifest sustained, long-term, structural changes in capital accumulation; in the relation of new value to accumulated value.

 d) In an attempt to counteract the overcapacity in that has driven down hire rates, and decimated earnings, the maritime fleet owners have introduced a "novel" "strategy"-- slow steaming.   The shipping companies have deliberately slowed the transport time between ports.  By lengthening the cycle time (elapsed time: ship A leaves X, reaches Y, unloads/reloads, returns to X), and keeping the schedule of service unchanged (i.e. weekly service from Shanghai to Marseilles),  the number of ships required to maintain the schedule increases. 

"Slow steaming" that lengthens the trip time for container ships from Shanghai to Marseilles by 7 days to  NOW 35 days (and thus the cycle time to 70 days), will require 10 ships to provide the weekly service, as opposed to the 8 ships required for a trip time of THEN 28 days (cycle time 56 days).   That's a 25% increased in fleet utilization.  Simple? Sure.

Simple genius?  Not quite.  Let's just say each container ship can carry 10,000 TEU (twenty foot equivalent units-- the standard measure for container service) containers.  The shipping line purchased the additional ships to bring its fleet to NOW 10 based on dispatching 100,000 TEUs every 56 days  (for purposes of this exercise let's leave out the return haulage. Trade flows are never balanced anyway).  The shipping line made its determinations based, in part, on being able to charge a freight rate of about $1300 per container per trip.  

THEN, the shipping line was dispatching 80,000 TEUs on 8 ships every 56 days at $1300 per TEU, grossing about $104 million, or about $1.86 million per day.

NOW, even if the freight rate per TEU  has not declined (which it has, by some 60 percent), spreading the 80,000 TEUs over 10 ships for 70 days, means we gross about $1.49 million per day.  Do that everyday for a year, and revenues decline a gut-wrenching $146 million.  The shippers ability to circulate the value sunk into the fleet has declined; circulation time has lengthened.  Realization has become impaired as capital has accumulated.

Slow-steaming also tells us that the actual operating costs of the fleet are minimal-- that the burden the weighs upon the bourgeoisie like an alp is the fixed cost of the circulation (and production) process; the variable costs are, in fact, engineered out, or at least to a minimum in the design of the fixed asset.  It becomes "more efficient,"  that is to say less of a loss, to operate the assets half-speed, at half-capacity, then it is to sequester the ships at anchorage.

2. ...and nowhere

 e) At a certain point, overproduction overwhelms  the bourgeoisie's  attempts to mitigate its impact.  At a certain point slow-steaming reaches its penultimate expression-- no-steaming.  That point has certainly been reached in the production and circulation of petroleum supplies.  More than 100 million barrels, more than a day's worth of global consumption,  of oil are being warehoused in tankers at sea.  This is not oil being held back as a "hedge" play.  This is not the "contango."  This is not oil "belonging" to traders, but rather oil belonging  to onshore producers and suppliers.  This is oil all dressed up with no place to go.  

Iran has 40 million barrels in tankers sitting in the Straits of Hormuz; the US has 20 million sitting in the Gulf of Mexico; another 35 million sits in the waters around Malaysia and Singapore.  The hire costs of  VLCCs (very large crude carriers, capacity above 2 million barrels) make it unlikely that the price of oil can increase enough to offset the expense of storage.  Then we'll move from penultimate to the ultimate; when slow-steaming, having exhausted "no-steaming," will morph into sinking the ships and their contents. 

November 18, 2015