Monetary policy is ultimately based on a theory of money: A Marxist critique of MMT

By Costas Lapavitsas and Nicolás Aguila

During the last two decades, Modern Monetary Theory (henceforth MMT) has won wide academic recognition and public influence. Its most prominent achievements include shifting the public debate on the conduct of economic policy and reviving interest in the theory of money. The former tends to attract most of the attention of both advocates and critics of MMT, but this is unjustified. MMT policy conclusions result from its underlying understanding of money, as some of the more illuminating MMT thinkers make abundantly clear (Bell, 2001; Tcherneva, 2006; Wray, 2010, 2014). A far richer assessment of MMT economic policy proposals would result by first considering the foundations of its theory of money, that is, neo-Chartalism.

In a recent article, we contrasted MMT with the Marxist theory of money. We showed that there were four important points of disagreement between these two schools of thought, namely on: (i) the ontology of money, (ii) the state and money, (iii) state economic policy, and (iv) world money and monetary sovereignty. We supported our argument with historical examples that we omit here for reasons of space.

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What Is Value? A Marxist Perspective

Marx’s critique of capitalism, and more specifically his theory of value, is still very relevant today, as I argue in my new book Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century.

But his work is often misunderstood, not only by orthodox economists but also by others – such as ‘greens’ – who seek inspiration in his writings. Economists, if they refer to his work at all, have tended to focus on the quantitative labour theory of value, ignoring what Marx called the qualitative theory of value: his critique of the economic categories of ‘bourgeois’ economics which mystify –  and hence also justify – the reality of what is really going on. The concept of fetishism is crucial to this theory, but by economists this has been either ignored or treated as the work of Marx the philosopher or Marx the sociologist. Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism in the very first chapter of Capital Volume I, where he seeks to get to grips with the mysterious phenomenon of exchange value. Rather than simplistically equating value with price – as is the practice of the market system and mainstream economics – he delves deep into the beliefs and practices that constitute and sustain the capitalist system. In other works, he applies the concept of fetishism to capital, money and interest-bearing capital. By reference to what he calls the ‘Trinity Formula’ he shows how, by presenting profit as the return on capital and rent as the return on land, both profit and rent are taken for granted, and go unchallenged. That the surplus value generated in production accrues solely to capital is treated as somehow ‘natural’.

In my book, I show the continuing relevance of Marx’s theory today, especially with regard to finance and the environment. Both the financial crisis of 2008 and the continuing crisis of environmental destruction are related to the way in which the market increasingly extends its grip over our lives: through the financialisation of everyday life, and through the use of market instruments and market principles that shape our relationship with nature.

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Neoliberalism’s many deaths and strange non-deaths 

neoliberalismBy Jack Copley and Alexis Moraitis

The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.

In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.

How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »

Facing a liquidity tsunami? Profit, risk, and discipline in emerging markets

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In April 2012, at the White House on her first visit to the United States since her election in 2010, Brazilian president Brazil Dilma Rousseff scolded advanced capitalist economies for unleashing a ‘tsunami de liquidez’, a ‘liquidity tsunami’, onto the developing world. The expression liquidity tsunami suggests that the sheer scale and volume of financial capital flows to developing and emerging markets had become an issue. It indicates that these quantities were overwhelming and could trigger devastating damages. 

This in itself is puzzling. Have we not been told by development economists and practitioners that financial capital flowing into the poorer areas of the world economy is something good and desirable? That one of the main causes of underdevelopment is actually the lack of capital and domestic savings in developing countries, and that this should be compensated with foreign capital inflows? Following this line of reasoning, vast swathes of financial capital flowing into emerging markets surely should be seen as a boon.

And there was some truth to that. The capital flow bonanza from the mid-2000s to late 2013 (coupled with the primary commodity super-cycle) did deliver some benefits to emerging markets. It helped governments fund themselves at better conditions. It provided the material basis for significant redistribution via a number of social policies. It contributed to economic growth performances much higher than over the previous decade. It also made a minority of people much richer in a very short period of time. In sum, the capital flow boom temporarily helped deliver some economic and social gains, and this was instrumental in consolidating social contracts between governments and their populations.Read More »

Re-thinking Social Reproduction: Crises, Contradictions, and Variegations 

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A new special issue of Capital & Class, edited by Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, sets out to broaden the analysis of social reproduction. Following their earlier volume on social reproduction – Power, Production and Social Reproduction (2003) – Bakker and Gill restate in this issue their commitment to ‘a novel methodological synthesis premised upon the mutual constitution of power, production, and social reproduction’ (2019, p. 510), and reassert the centrality of ‘the unfolding contradiction between the global accumulation of capital and the provision of stable and progressive conditions of social reproduction’ (p. 504) to their analysis. 

The key contribution of this issue, however, is twofold. First, it further develops the theory of social reproduction, advancing a conception of social ontology based around a new concept: variegated social reproduction. Second, it contributes to the analysis of contemporary neoliberalism as a whole – and in particular, to discussions around variegated neoliberalism – mapping out how this latter variegation is internally linked to that of social reproduction. In this post I will briefly review these contributions, focussing on the articles of the special issue that deal with cases outside of Western Europe and North America to highlight different geographies’ contributions to the discussion of social reproduction. Read More »

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalism

Screenshot 2020-02-11 at 09.28.58In this article I remind readers about the existence of “sacrificial generations” within global capitalist history. By sacrificial generation I mean a group of people at a point in time that experiences suffering with the immanent or intentional effect of changing economic, political or social conditions, which are in turn disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time. I identify four areas in which there systematically exists sacrificial generations:  three stages of capitalist development (state formation, capitalist property rights transition and early industrialization) and a cyclical aspect of capitalism (Polanyian-Marxian cycles). It could also be argued that the future generations which would disproportionately experience the environmental costs of past and present generations’ consumption are “climatic sacrificial generations”, but this will not be explored. Read More »

The currency hierarchy and the role of the dollar as world money

dollar-1445476_1920There has recently been much talk that the hegemony of the United States is crumbling, from the decline in its share of world GDP to its possible submission to a new economic power such as China. However, little has been said about the fundamental pillar that sustains the power of the United States, the US dollar.

Globally, the dollar is the most utilized currency, both in trade in products and services and in cross-border financial operations. Given the continued dominance of the US dollar as the key currency of the international monetary system, it is difficult to speak of a declining US hegemony. But how to explain the power of the dollar and the apparent immunity of the United States hegemony in times of financialization?Read More »