Differential Accumulation and Threat of War?
My good friend Jonathan Nitzan sent me a paper he wrote with Shimshon Bichler on Differential Accumulation:
Let me go over a few key passages below. On the institution of capital, they write:
I invite my readers to read their excellent short paper on differential accumulation by clicking here. Jonathan and Shimshon are two of the smartest political economists in academia but they will never win any Nobel prize for their work (not that they care). Intelligent money managers like George Soros will find tremendous value in their work (Jonathan used to be an Associate Editor at BCA Research working on emerging markets; unlike many economists, he knows all about how markets really work).
Let me go over a few key passages below. On the institution of capital, they write:
Capitalization represents the discounting to present value of risk-adjusted expected future earnings, and each of its symbolic components – the expected future earnings, the risk that capitalists associate with these earnings, and the normal rate of return that they use to bring them to present value – is a manifestation of organized power.In order to understand capitalism, you have to understand how organized power serves the interests of the elite few. And as we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But according to Bichler and Nitzan, power is never absolute; it’s always relative:
The primacy of power, say Bichler and Nitzan, is built into the concept of private ownership. The very concept implies exclusion and deprivation. In this sense, private ownership is a negative, not a positive, entity. It is based not on the ability to produce, but on the capacity to incapacitate. It is wholly and only an institution of exclusion, and institutional exclusion is a matter of organized power. Of course, exclusion does not have to be exercised. What matter here, argue Bichler and Nitzan, are the right to exclude and the ability to exact pecuniary terms for not exercising that right. This right and ability are the foundations of accumulation. They enable capitalists to profit greatly from mismanaging the world’s ecosystem, from making society more unequal and from blocking the development of humane alternatives – and to do all that under the guise of ‘scientific management’ and the ‘efficient allocation’ of resources.
Capital, Bichler and Nitzan claim, is nothing but organized power. This power, they say, has two sides: one qualitative, the other quantitative. The qualitative side comprises the many institutions, developments and conflicts through which capitalists constantly creorder – or create the order of – their society; that is, the processes through which they shape and restrict the social trajectory in order to extract their tributary income. The quantitative side is the universal algorithm that integrates, reduces and distils these numerous qualitative processes down to the monetary magnitude of capitalization.
For this reason, both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of capital accumulation have to be assessed differentially, relative to other capitals. Contrary to the claims of conventional economics, say Bichler and Nitzan, capitalists are driven not to maximize profit, but to ‘beat the average’ and ‘exceed the normal rate of return’. Their entire existence is conditioned by the need to outperform, by the imperative to achieve not absolute accumulation, but differential accumulation.Bichler and Nitzan plot the differential accumulation of dominant capital in the United States since 1950 but note the following:
And this differential drive is crucial: to beat the average means to accumulate faster than others; and since the relative magnitude of capital represents power, capitalists who accumulate differentially increase their power (to emphasize, for Bichler and Nitzan capitalist power relates not to the narrow neoclassical notion of ‘market power’, but to the broad strategic capacity to inflict sabotage).
The centrality of differential accumulation, claim Bichler and Nitzan, means that the analysis of accumulation should focus not only on capital in general, but also and perhaps more so on dominant capital in particular – that is, on the leading corporate-state alliances whose differential accumulation has gradually placed them at the centre of the political economy.
This measure, though, significantly underestimates the power of dominant capital. Note that the vast majority of firms are not listed. Since the shares of unlisted firms are not publicly traded, they have no ‘market value’; the fact that they have no market value keeps them out of the statisti-cal picture; and since most of the excluded firms are relatively small, differential measures based only on large listed firms end up understating the relative size of dominant capital.That last figure is an eye-opener. The paper ends with a discussion on Middle-East energy conflicts, a subject that might be a dominant theme in 2012:
In order to get around this limitation, Bichler and Nitzan plot another differential measure – one that is based not on capitalization but on net profit – and that measure includes all U.S.-incorporated firms, listed and unlisted.
As expected, the two series have very different orders of magnitude (notice the two log scales). But they are also highly correlated (which isn’t surprising, given that profit is the key driver of capitalization). This correlation, say Bichler and Nitzan, means that we can use the broadly based differential profit indicator as a proxy for the power of dominant capital relative to all corporations. And the result is remarkable. The data show that during the 1950s, a typical dominant capital corporation was 2,586 times larger/more powerful than the average U.S. firm. By the 2000s, this ratio had risen to 22,097 – nearly a ninefold increase.
Bichler and Nitzan’s research offers various historical studies of differential accumulation in which they examine the quantities and qualities of capital as power. One of these is their work on the Middle East. Figure 5 (above) shows the differential performance of the world’s six leading privately owned oil companies relative to the Fortune 500 benchmark. Each bar in the chart shows the extent to which the oil companies’ rate of return on equity exceeded or fell short of the Fortune 500 average. The gray bars show positive differential accumulation – i.e. the per cent by which the oil companies exceeded the Fortune 500 average. The black bars show negative differential accumulation; that is, the per cent by which the oil companies trailed the average. Finally, the little explosion signs in the chart show the occurrences of ‘Energy Conflicts’ – that is, regional energy-related wars.That last one should make us pause and reflect on the state of the world today and whether or not we are on the verge of another "extreme form of sabotage," ie. war. I thank Jonathan and Shimshon for their thought provoking analysis and hope my readers will take the time to read their excellent paper. Below, Ted Rall on RT discussing how US trajectory on Syria 'a self-generating path to war'.
Now, conventional economics, say Bichler and Nitzan, has no interest in the differential profits of the oil companies, and it certainly has nothing to say about the relationship between these differential profits and regional wars. Differential profit is perhaps of some interest to financial analysts, and Middle-East wars are the business of experts in international relations and security analysts. But since each of these phenomena belongs to a completely separate realm of society, no one has ever thought of relating them in the first place. And yet, these phenomena, argue Bichler and Nitzan, are not simply related. In fact, they could be thought of as two sides of the very same process – namely, the global accumulation of capital as power. They point to three remarkable relationships depicted in the chart:
- First, every energy conflict was preceded by the large oil companies trailing the average. In other words, for an energy conflict to erupt, the oil companies first had to differentially decumulate – a most unusual prerequisite from the viewpoint of any social science.
- Second, every energy conflict was followed by the oil companies beating the average. In other words, war and conflict in the region, which social scientists customarily blame for ‘distorting’ the aggregate economy, have served the differential interest of certain key firms at the expense of other key firms.
- Third and finally, with one exception, in 1996-7, the oil companies never managed to beat the average without there first being an energy conflict in the region. In other words, the differential performance of the oil companies depended not on production, but on the most extreme form of sabotage: war.