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“Has Finance Capitalism Destroyed Industrial Capitalism?”

Summary:
(At the big economics conference earlier in January, I spoke on a virtual panel in response to Michael Hudon’s talk on the this topic. HIs paper isn’t yet available, but he has made similar arguments here and here. My comments were in part addressed to his specific paper, but were also a response to the broader discussion around financialization. A version of this post will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics.) Michael Hudson argues that the industrial capitalism of a previous era has given way to a new form of financial capitalism. Unlike capitalists in Marx’s day, he argues, today’s financial capitalists claim their share of the surplus by passively extracting interest or economic rents broadly. They resemble landlords and other non-capitalist

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(At the big economics conference earlier in January, I spoke on a virtual panel in response to Michael Hudon’s talk on the this topic. HIs paper isn’t yet available, but he has made similar arguments here and here. My comments were in part addressed to his specific paper, but were also a response to the broader discussion around financialization. A version of this post will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics.)

Michael Hudson argues that the industrial capitalism of a previous era has given way to a new form of financial capitalism. Unlike capitalists in Marx’s day, he argues, today’s financial capitalists claim their share of the surplus by passively extracting interest or economic rents broadly. They resemble landlords and other non-capitalist elites, whose pursuit of private wealth does not do anything to develop the forces of production, broaden the social division of labor, or prepare the ground for socialism.

Historically, the progressive character of capitalism comes from three dimensions on which capitalists differ from most elites. First, they do not merely claim the surplus from production, but control the production process itself; second, they do not use the surplus directly but must realize it by selling it on a market; and third, unlike most elites who acquire their status by inheritance or some similar political process, a capitalist’s continued existence as a capitalist depends on their ability to generate a large enough money income to acquire new means of production. This means that capitalists are under constant pressure to reduce the costs through technical improvements to the production process. In some cases the pressure to reduce costs may also lead to support for measures to socialize the reproduction costs of labor power via programs like public education, or for public provision of infrastructure and other public services.

In Hudson’s telling, financial claims on the surplus are essentially extractive; the pursuit of profit by finance generates pressure neither for technical improvements in the production process, nor for cost-reducing public investment. The transition from one to the other as the dominant form of surplus appropriation is associated with a great many negative social and political developments — lower wages, privatization of public goods, anti-democratic political reforms, tax favoritism and so on. (The timing of this transition is not entirely clear.)

Other writers have told versions of this story, but Hudson’s is one of the more compelling I have seen. I am impressed by the breadth of his analysis, and agree with him on almost everything he finds objectionable in contemporary capitalism.  

I am not, however, convinced. I do not think that “financial” and “industrial” capital can be separated in the way he proposes. I think it is better to consider them two moments of a single process. Connected with this, I am skeptical of the simple before and after periodization he proposes. Looking at the relationship between finance and production historically, we can see movements in both directions, with different rhythms in different places and sectors. Often, the growth of industrial capitalism in one industry or area has gone hand in hand with a move toward more financial or extractive capitalism somewhere else. I also think the paper gives a somewhat one-sided account of developments in the contemporary United States. Finally, I have concerns about the political program the analysis points to.

1.

Let’s start with idea that industrial capitalists support public investments in areas like education, health care or transportation because they lower the reproduction costs of labor. This is less important for owners of land, natural resources or money, whose claim on the social surplus doesn’t mainly come through employing labor. 

I wouldn’t say this argument is wrong, exactly, but I was struck by the absence of any discussion of the other ways in which industrial capitalists can reduce the costs of labor — by lowering the subsistence level of workers, or reducing their bargaining power, or extracting more work effort, or shifting employment to lower-wage regions or populations. The idea that the normal or usual result of industrial capitalists’ pursuit of lower labor costs is public investment seems rather optimistic.

Conversely, public spending on social reproduction only reduces costs for capitalist class insofar as the subsistence level is fixed. As soon as we allow for some degree of conflict or bargaining over workers share of the social product, we introduce possibility that socializing reproduction costs does not lower the price of labor, but instead raises the living standards of the human beings who embody that labor. Indeed, that’s why many people support such public spending in the first place!

On the flip side, the case against landlords as a force for capitalist progress is not as straightforward as the paper suggests. 

Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, convincingly, that the origins of what Hudson calls industrial capitalism should really be placed in the British countryside, where competition among tenants spurred productivity-boosting improvements in agricultural land. It may be true that these gains were mostly captured by landlords in the form of higher rents, but that does not mean they did not take place. Similarly, Gavin Wright argues that one of the key reasons for greater public investment in the ante-bellum North compared with the South was precisely the fact that the main form of wealth in the North was urban land. Land speculators had a strong interest in promoting canals, roads and other forms of public investment, because they could expect to capture gains from them in the form of land value appreciation. 

In New York City, the first subways were built by a company controlled by August Belmont, who was also a major land speculator. In a number of cases, Belmont — and later the builders of the competing BMT system — would extend transit service into areas where they or their partners had assembled large landholdings, to be able to develop or sell off the land at a premium after transit made it more valuable. The possibility of these gains was probably a big factor in spurring private investment in transit service early in the 20th century.

Belmont can stand as synecdoche for the relationship of industrial and financial capital in general. As the organizer of the labor engaged in subway construction, as the one who used the authority acquired through control of money to direct social resources to the creation of new means of transportation, he appears as an industrial capitalist, contributing to the development of the forces of production as well as reducing reproduction costs by giving workers access to better, lower-cost housing in outlying areas. As the real estate speculator profiting by selling off land in those areas at inflated prices, he appears as a parasitic financial capitalist. But it’s the same person sitting in both chairs. And he only engaged in the first activity in the expectation of the second one.

None of this is to defend landlords. But it is to make the point that the private capture of the gains from the development of the forces of production is, under capitalism, a condition of that development occurring in the first place, as is the coercive control over labor in the production process. If we can acknowledge the contributions of a representative industrial capitalist like Henry Frick, author of the Homestead massacre, to the development of society’s productive forces, I think we can do the same for a swindler like August Belmont.

More broadly, it seems to me that the two modes of profit-seeking that Hudson calls industrial and financial are not the distinct activities they appear as at first glance. 

It might seem obvious that profiting from a new, more efficient production process is very different from profiting by using the power of the state to get some legal monopoly or just compel people to pay you. It is true that the first involves real gains for society while the second does not. But how do those social gains come to be claimed as profit by the capitalist? First, by the exclusive access they have to the means of production that allows them to claim the product, to the exclusion of everyone else who helped produce it. And second, by their ability to sell it at a price above its cost of production that allows them to profit, rather than everyone who consumes the product. In that sense, the features that Hudson points to as defining financial capitalism are just as fundamental to industrial capitalism. Under capitalism, making a product is not a distinct goal from extracting a rent. Capturing rents is the whole point.

The development of industry may be socially progressive in a way that the development of finance is not. But that doesn’t mean that the income and authority of the industrial capitalist is different from that of the financial capitalist, or even that they are distinct people.

Hudson is aware of this, of course, and mentions that from a Marxist standpoint the capitalist is also a rentier. If he followed this thought further I think he would find it creates problems for the dichotomy he is arguing for.

Let’s take a step back.

Capital is a process, a circuit: M – C – P – C’ – M’. Money is laid out to gain control of commodities and labor power, which are the combined in a production process. The results of this process are then converted back into money through sale on the market.

At some points in this circuit, capital is embodied in money, at other points in labor power and means of production. We often think of this circuit as happening at the level of an individual commodity, but it applies just as much at larger scales. We can think of the growth of an industrial firm as the earlier part of the circuit where value comes to be embodied in a concrete production process, and payouts to shareholders as the last part where value returns to the money form. 

This return to money form just as essential to the circuit of capital as production is. It’s true that payouts to shareholders absorb large fraction of profits, much larger than what they put in. We might see this as a sign that finance is a kind of parasite. But we could also see shareholder payouts as where the M movement is happening. Industrial production doesn’t require that its results be eventually realized as money. But industrial capitalism does. From that point of view, the financial engineers who optimize the movement of profits out of the firm are as integral a part of industrial capital as the engineer-engineers who optimize the production process. 

2.

My second concern is with the historical dimension of the story. The sense one gets from the paper is that there used to be industrial capitalism, and now there is financial capitalism. But I don’t think history works like that.

It is certainly true that the forms in which a surplus is realized as money have changed over time. And it is also true that while capital is a single process, there are often different human beings and institutions embodying it at different points in the circuit.

In a small business, the same person may have legal ownership of the enterprise, directly manage the production process, and receive the profits it generates. Hudson is certainly right that this form of enterprise was more common in the 19th century, which among other things allowed Marx to write in Volume One about “the capitalist” without having to worry too much about exactly where this person was located within the circuit. In a modern corporation, by contrast, production is normally in the hands of professional managers, while the surplus flows out to owners of stock or other financial claims. This creates the possibility for the contradiction between the conditions of generating a surplus and of realizing it, which always exists under capitalism, to now appear as a conflict between distinct social actors.

The conversion of most large enterprises to publicly traded corporations took place in the US in a relatively short period starting in the 1890s. The exact timing is of course different elsewhere, but this separation of ownership and control is a fairly universal phenomenon. Even at the time this was perceived as a momentous change, and if we are looking for a historical break that I think this is where to locate it. Already by the early 20th century, the majority of great fortunes took the form of financial assets, rather than direct ownership of businesses. And we can find contemporary observers like Veblen describing “sabotage” of productive enterprises by finance (in The Price System and the Engineers) in terms very similar to the ones that someone like Michael Hudson uses today.

It’s not unreasonable to describe this change as financialization. But important to realize it’s not a one-way or uniform transition.

In 1930s, Keynes famously described American capital development as byproduct of a casino, again in terms similar to Hudson’s. In The General Theory, an important part of the argument is that stock markets have a decisive influence on real investment decisions. But the funny thing is that at that moment the trend was clearly in the opposite direction. The influence of financial markets on corporate managers diminished after the 1920s, and reached its low point a generation or so after Keynes wrote.  

If we think of financialization as the influence of financial markets over the organization of production, what we see historically is an oscillation, a back and forth or push and pull, rather than a well-defined before and after. Again, the timing differs, but the general phenomenon of a back and forth movement between more and less financialized capitalism seems to be a general phenomenon. Postwar Japan is often pointed to, with reason, as an example of a capitalist economy with a greatly reduced role for financial markets. But this was not a survival from some earlier era of industrial capitalism, but rather the result of wartime economic management, which displaced financial markets from their earlier central role.

Historically, we also find that moves in one direction in one place can coexist with or even reinforce moves the other way elsewhere. For example, the paper talks about the 19th-century alliance of English bankers and proto-industrialists against landlords in the fight to overturn the corn laws. Marx of course agreed that this was an example of the progressive side of capitalist development. But we should add that the flip side of Britain specializing in industry within the global division of labor was that other places came to specialize more in primary production, with a concomitant increase in the power of landlords and reliance on bound labor. Something we should all have learned from the new historians of capitalism like Sven Beckert is how intimately linked were the development of wage labor and industry in Britain and the US North with he development of slavery and cotton production in the US South; indeed they were two sides of the same process. Similar arguments have been made linking the development of English industry to slave-produced sugar (Williams), and to the second serfdom and de-urbanization in Eastern Europe (Braudel). 

Meanwhile, as theorists of underdevelopment like Raul Prebisch have pointed out, it’s precisely the greater market power enjoyed by industry relative to primary products that allows productivity gains in industry to be captured by the producers, while productivity gains in primary production are largely captured by the consumers. We could point to the same thing within the US, where tremendous productivity advances in agriculture have led to cheap food, not rich farmers. Here again, the relationship between the land-industry binary and the monopoly-competition binary is the opposite as Hudson’s story. This doesn’t mean that they always line up that way, either, but it does suggest that the relationship is at least historically contingent.

3.

Let’s turn now to the present. As we all know, since 1980 the holders of financial assets have reasserted their claims against productive enterprises, in the US and in much of the rest of the world. But I do not think this implies, as Hudson suggests, that today’s leading capitalists are the equivalent of feudal landowners. While pure rentiers do exist, the greatest accumulations of capital remain tied to control over the production process. 

Even within the financial sector, extraction is only part of the story. A major development in finance over the past generation has been the growth of specialized venture capital and private equity funds. Though quite different in some ways — private equity specializing in acquisition of existing firms, venture capital in financing new ones — both can be seen as a kind of de-financialization, in the sense that both function to re-unite management and ownership. It is true of course, that private equity ownership is often quite destructive to the concrete production activities and social existence of a firm. But private equity looting happens not through the sort of arm’s length tribute collection of al landlord, but through direct control over the firm’s activity. The need for specialized venture capital funds to invest in money-losing startups, on the other hand, is certainly consistent with the view that strict imposition of financial criteria is inconsistent with development of production. But it runs against a simple story in which industry has been replaced by finance. (Instead, the growth of these sectors looks like an example of the way the capital looks different at different moments in its circuit. Venture capitalists willing to throw money at even far-fetched money-losing enterprises, are specialists in the M-C moment, while the vampires of private equity are specialists in C-M.)

It is true, of course, that finance as an industry has grown relative to the economy over the past 50 years, as have the payments made by corporations to shareholders.   Hudson describes these trends as a “relapse back toward feudalism and debt peonage”, but I don’t think that’s right. The creditor and the landlord stand outside the production process. A debt peon has direct access to means of production, but is forced to hand over part of the product to the creditor or landlord. Capitalists by contrast get their authority and claim on surplus from control over the production process. This is as true today as when Marx wrote. 

There is a widespread view that gains from ownership of financial assets have displaced profits from production even more many nonfinancial corporations, and that household debt service is a form of exploitation that now rivals the work place as a source of surplus, as households are forced to take on more debt to meet their subsistence needs. But these claims are mistaken — they confuse the temporary rise in interest rates after 1980 for a deeper structural shift.

As Joel Rabinovich convincingly shows, the increased financial holdings of nonfinancial corporations mostly represent goodwill from mergers and stakes in subsidiaries, not financial assets in the usual sense, while the apparent rise in their financial income of in the 1980s is explained by the higher interest on their cash holdings. With respect to household debt, it continues to overwhelmingly finance home ownership, not consumption; is concentrated in the upper part of the income distribution; and rose as a result of the high interest rates after 1980, not any increase in household borrowing. (See my discussion here.) With the more recent decline in interest rates, much of this supposed finacialization has reversed. Contrary to Hudson’s picture of an ever-rising share of income going to debt service, interest payments in the US now total about 17 percent of GDP, the same as in 1975.

On the other side, the transformation of the production process remains the source of the biggest concentrations of wealth. Looking at the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, it is striking how rare generalized financial wealth is, as opposed to claims on particular firms. Jeff Bezos (#1), Bill Gates (#2) and Mark Zuckerberg (#3) all gained their wealth through control over newly created production processes, not via financial claims on existing ones. Indeed, of the top 20 names on the list, all but one are founders and active managers of companies or their immediate families. (The lone exception is Warren Buffet.) Finance and real estate are the source of a somewhat greater share of the fortunes found further down the list, but nowhere near a majority.

Companies like Wal Mart and Google and Amazon are clearly examples of industrial capitalism. They sell products, they lower prices, they put strong downward pressure on costs. Cheap consumer goods at Wal Mart lower the costs of subsistence for workers today just as cheap imported food did for British workers in the 19th century.

Does this mean Amazon and Wal Mart are good? No, of course not. (Tho we shouldn’t deny that their logistical systems are genuine technological accomplishments that a socialist society could build on.) My point is that the greatest concentrations of wealth today still arise from the competition to sell more desirable goods at lower prices. This runs against the idea of dominance by rentiers or passive rent-extractors. 

Finally, I have some concerns about the political implications of this analysis. If we take Hudson’s story seriously, we may see a political divide between industrial capital and finance capital, and the possibility of a popular movement seeking alliance with the former. I am doubtful about this. While finance is a distinct social actor, I do not think it is useful to think of it as a distinct type of capital, one that is antagonistic to productive capital. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s better to see finance as weapon by which the claims of wealth holders are asserted against the rest of society.

Certainly I don’t think the human embodiments of industrial capital would agree that they are victims of finance. Many of the features of contemporary capitalism he objects would appear to them as positive developments. Low wages, weak labor and light taxes are desired by capitalists in general, not just landlords and bankers. The examples Hudson points to of industrial capitalists and their political representatives supporting measures to socialize the costs of reproduction are real and worth learning from, but as products of specific historical circumstances rather than as generic features of industrial capitalism. We would need a better account of the specific conditions under which capital turns to programs for reducing labor costs in this way — rather than, for example, simply forcing down wages — to assess to what extent, and in which areas, they exist today. 

Even if it were feasible, I am not sure this kind of program does much to support a more transformative political project. Hudson quotes Simon Patten’s turn-of-the-last-century description of public services like education as a “fourth factor of production” that is necessary to boost industrial competitiveness, with the implication that similar arguments might be successful today. Frankly, this kind of language strikes me as more characteristic of our neoliberal era than a basis for an alternative to it. As a public university teacher, I reject the idea that my job is to raise the productive capacity of workers, or reduce the overhead costs of American capital. Nor do I think we will be successful in defending education and other public goods from defunding and austerity using this language. And of course, it is not the only language available to us. As Mike Konczal notes in his new book Freedom from the Market, historically the case for public provision has often been made in terms of removing certain areas of life from the market, as well as the kinds of arguments Hudson describes.

More fundamentally, the framing here suggests that the objectionable features of capitalism stem from it not being capitalist enough. The focus on monopolies and rents suggests that what is wanted is more vigorous market competition. It is a strikingly Proudhonian position to say that the injustice and waste of existing capitalism stem from the failure of prices to track costs of production. Surely from a Marxist perspective it is precisely the pressure to compete on the basis of lower costs that is the source of that injustice and waste.

There is a great deal that is interesting and insightful in this paper, as there always is in Michael Hudson’s work. But I remain unconvinced that financial and industrial capitalism can be usefully thought of as two opposed systems, or that we can tell a meaningful historical story about a transition between them. Industry and finance are better thought of, in my view, as two different sides of the same system, or two moments in the same circuit of capital.  Capitalism is a system in which human creative activity is subordinated to the endless accumulation of money. In this sense, finance is as integral to it as production. A focus on on the industrial-financial divide risks attributing the objectionable effects of accumulation to someone else — a rentier or landlord — leaving a one-sided and idealized picture of productive capital as the residual.

This being URPE, many people here will have at one time or another sung “is there aught we have in common with the greedy parasites?” Do we think those words refer to the banker only, or to the boss?

UPDATE: My colleague Julio Huato made similar arguments in response to an earlier version of Hudson’s paper a few years ago, here.

 

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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