Pick of the Quarter

Issue: 180

Joseph Choonara

In our previous issue we noted the furore created by Robert Brenner and Dylan Riley’s “Seven theses on American politics”, published in New Left Review at the end of 2022.

In the July-August issue of New Left Review, Lola Seaton offers an outline of the ongoing discussion (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii142/articles/lola-seaton-reflections-on-political-capitalism). Although it somewhat exaggerates the quality of the responses to the original piece, claiming that the “richness and rigour” of the debate far surpass what the left could muster ten years ago, it provides a useful summary of the various replies in New Left Review, Sidecar, Jacobin, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere.

Brenner and Riley’s original intervention made an interesting attempt to root current developments in the politics of the United States, such as the relative success of the Democratic Party in the 2022 midterm elections, within deeper socio-economic patterns. Brenner and Riley provocatively argue that—in the absence of major outbreaks of class struggle and faced with a capitalist system offering limited scope for reform—working-class interests have fragmented, ­leading workers, particularly white ones and those without a college education, to support the Republicans.

However, these claims have attracted less attention in the debate than the underlying economic analysis. Brenner and Riley’s concept of “political capitalism”, in which political power becomes a key determinant of the rate of return on capital, has come in for particular criticism.

Most recently, Seth Ackerman, writing in Jacobin, has questioned Brenner’s broader, and highly influential, analysis of the post-1973 economy as having experienced a long era of stagnation, known as the “long downturn” thesis (https://jacobin.com/2023/09/robert-brenner-marxist-economics-falling-rate-of-profit-stagnation-overcapacity-industrial-policy). As Ackerman argues, Brenner is the latest in a series of Marxists to identify the crisis tendencies of capitalism as essential to advancing revolutionary socialist arguments and ­demonstrating the incapacity of reformism to address, in the long term, the problems faced by workers.

In the early 20th century, there were various conceptions of crisis offered by Marxists, but, from the 1970s, Karl Marx’s “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall” has played a central role for many approaches, including that of this journal.

Ackerman challenges this, arguing that the competitive dynamic underpinning Marx’s law has little basis in reality. He leans heavily on modern quantitative studies of “product appeal” and “idiosyncratic demand” to support his ­argument, and sophisticated approaches, such as that formulated by Anwar Shaikh, can probably survive these challenges intact. However, Brenner’s version of the theory, based on excess capacity in global manufacturing industry, has always been vulnerable to such criticisms, as various authors pointed out in a 1999 symposium for Historical Materialism (volume 4, issue 1), to which two former editors of this journal contributed.

More generally, Ackerman wants to argue that the world economy has not been in the perilous state suggested by Brenner. Here Ackerman mobilises two pieces of data. The first is global GDP growth per capita, which has fallen from its peak towards the end of the post-war boom, but is still way ahead of levels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it is entirely credible that a highly developed capitalism, with industrialisation spreading globally, requires higher levels of GDP growth to sustain itself.

The second is a rather technical point: that the measures of capital stock used by Marxists to calculate the profit rate rely on flawed measures of capital depreciation. More realistic methods would, Ackerman argues, lead to much higher recent rates of profit in the US and elsewhere. This would be more convincing if Ackerman did not claim that the major debate among Marxists about “current value” versus “historical value” measures of capital stocks could simply be left to one side. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how other Marxists respond to his challenge.