The Brenner symposium, the crash of 1998, and the rate of profit yet again

In 1999, Historical Materialism organised a symposium in SOAS around the work of Robert Brenner. At the centre of this debate lay the vexed question, as always, of the rate of profit. Brenner, a historian, had assembled the mass of factual data which figured centrally in his New Left Review magnum opus and which pointed almost incontrovertibly to a long term fall in the US and other profit rates. This was disputed by many – in fact most – Marxists who found it inconvenient, given both that their interpretation of Marx predicted that the opposite should have happened, and that unerring instinct for the preservation of a professional standing which would rapidly descend into marginalization, were they to tackle the central questions now facing political economy whilst standing on the ground of Marx’s own work.

The complication that beset this debate was that Brenner, a disciple if not founder of the ‘Political Marxism’ school, adopted and held to the simultaneist interpretation of Marx articulated by the Analytical Marxist John Roemer, one of the most sophisticated exponents of this interpretation. Brenner squared this circle, I think it is fair to say, by presenting his own theory centred on the manner in which capital depreciates, which, on close examination, is not only essentially temporalist in nature, but quite close to Marx’s own view.

Two other contradictions were present. Brenner had led the charge, earlier in the century, against any notion that capitalism in the West depended on the colonial or imperial relation of the so-called ‘advanced capitalist’ economies to those of the global South. His famous ‘Smithian Marxism’ attack on the theories of Gunder Frank, and by implication the entire legacy of the developmentalist literature with its implicit attack on the economic character of the imperial world order, had played a major role in excluding this body of thinking from serious consideration by Western Academic Marxists. This was becoming pretty hard to square with the empirical facts of the neoliberal decades.

Moreover, Brenner was in several senses ambiguous about the underlying causes of the prolonged fall in the US profit rate which, at that time, all major Marxist economists had to recognise (Dumenil and Levy later abandoned this recognition and launched their ill-fated work hailing an alleged ‘Triumph of capital’ arising from the financialised neoliberal reconstruction of the major capitalist economies). The latter naturally vanished as a serious contribution with the crash of 2008 which swept away many such triumphalist pronouncements, not least those of the IMF. Brenner, like many Marxists, oscillated between ascribing, as the causes of this long-term fall, the rate of exploitation and the accumulation of capital.

In my own contribution to the SOAS debate, however, I found myself in the position of defending Brenner the historian against his detractors the economists. As Marx once said to Engels concerning the existence of absolute rent, in all disputes between economists and statiticians, the statisticians are right 99% of the time. This was the case with Brenner, who came under merciless attack from economists to whom, it seemed, facts were the most dangerous threat to theory that could possibly be experienced by any true economist. In a certain sense, they were right: the facts spelled the death-knell of economic orthodoxy, though from then on persisted only in the zombie form of official IMF dogma.

My contribution therefore focussed centrally on examining and accounting for this critical disjunction between the facts of the emerging economic world order, and the theories with which economic dogma entered the new millenium.

It was eventually published as  ‘Crisis and the Poverty of Nations: Two Market Products Which Value Explains Better’, Symposium on Robert Brenner and the World Crisis, Historical Materialism No.5, Winter 1999, pp 29-77. London: LSE. ISSN 0 9532171 4 0