The Paradox of the Two Knights

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/12/2020 - 12:01am in

By Carlos García Hernández

Article originally published in Spanish by RedMMT here

Two knights chess pieces on a chess boardPhoto by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash

Marx argues that any economic system based on private ownership of the means of production is doomed to disappear, in order to give rise to a superior system without private ownership of the means of production. The reason for this collapse of capitalist society and the subsequent emergence of socialism is to be found in the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. According to this law, the contradictions among social classes within the capitalist system can only tend to increase, because in order to be able to compete against each other, the capitalists have to increase their rate of profit permanently. This is only possible through increased exploitation of the workers, which results in ever lower wages and ever longer working hours. However, this impoverishment of wage-earning labour comes up against a limit, “capital itself”. Below this limit, a crisis of demand occurs after which workers cannot subsist, as they cannot buy enough of the goods they produce. Moreover, the few capitalists who exist at this stage go out of business. This is how the edifice of capitalism collapses and a better, sustainable system without private ownership of the means of production, called socialism, emerges, whose higher phase is called communism. “Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production”.

No one took Marx’s work more seriously than John Maynard Keynes. That is why he realised that history was faced with a fundamental question: Is what Marx says true? In order to answer this question, we have to pay attention to the logical form of the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall. The logical form that this law takes is the modus tollens ((P→Q) ʌ ¬Q) → ¬P, if private property exists (P) then the system collapses (Q); if the system does not collapse (¬Q) then private property does not imply the collapse of the system (¬P).

Certainly, during the decades between the publication of Marx’s Capital and the time of Keynes, there had been dramatic developments. While capitalism did not seem to be on the verge of collapse in many places on the planet, the communist revolution had triumphed in the Soviet Union, in 1929 the US economy had entered a major recession following the analyses of the demand crises set out by Marx and Germany was being torn between Nazism and communism. In the eyes of an anti-socialist like Keynes, the situation was highly worrying. However, to prove the falsity of the premise P→Q it is enough that this premise is false in one single case. This led Keynes to study what, in his eyes, was Marx’s main contribution, his analysis of the monetary circuit. If there was any contradiction in Marx’s approaches, it had to be there.

To get to the monetary circuit, Keynes had to go first through Marx’s theory of labour. In fact, he accepted it as true and wrote: “It is my belief that much unnecessary perplexity can be avoided if we limit ourselves strictly to the two units, money and labour, when we are dealing with the behaviour of the economic system as a whole”. From an anthropological point of view, Keynes has no problem accepting that human labour is the only source of value and that commodities receive the value from human labour, just as cold water receives the heat from a hot object when the object is immersed in it. The contradiction is found in the next step, when Marx analyses the monetary circuit in a monetary economy of production in which there is a shift from having producers who exchange their commodities for money in order to buy other commodities (c – m – c) to having capitalists who accumulate money in order to buy commodities which they then sell for a larger amount of money thanks to the surplus value extracted from the workers (m – c – M). This step is explained by Marx as an extension of barter, he mentions Robinson Crusoe and takes a metallist stance with regard to money, this is where Keynes finds the contradiction he was looking for, in the exogenous commodity money presented by Marx, and it is from here that he builds his work.

First, he denies exogenous money and defends the endogenous character of fiat money. Thus, in his “Treatise on Money,” he presents the creation of money as an endogenous part of the economic cycle and denies the loanable funds theory. The money is mostly created by banks lending to their customers regardless of their money reserves, as they can always turn to the Central Bank as a lender of last resort. The rest of the money is created directly by the states through the coordination of the Central Bank and the Treasury to carry out public spending. In both cases, the money is denominated in national currency and comes from the Central Bank, which does not depend on its gold or silver reserves, tax collection or debt issuance to issue national currency.

This raises a political question, again not analysed by Marx. If in the “Treatise on Money” the creation of money is presented as a decision made by banks when they are faced with an opportunity to make profits, in the “General Theory”, the creation of money is also presented as a political decision by governments to create aggregate demand through public spending via deficits. Without this ability of governments to create aggregate demand through public deficits, not only would Marx’s prophecy about the collapse of capitalism be fulfilled, but it would also be impossible to explain the very birth of the monetary economies of production. The monetary circuit is not born of barter, neither of gold nor of silver, but of credit granted by governments as sovereign issuers of national currency, which in today’s societies passes through the existence of central banks.

Keynes’ recipe is simple: to avoid the demand crises described by Marx, states must create aggregate demand through public expenditure in order to maintain levels of full employment and levels of welfare that do not lead to the collapse of capitalism. This is the recipe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt applied, in contact with Keynes himself, to set in motion the New Deal that brought the US out of the Great Recession of 1929, and it is also the recipe that was applied in the West after the Second World War to build up welfare and social protection systems. Here are two cases in which P→Q is not fulfilled and therefore the premise enunciated by Marx is refuted.


Chess board showing the two knights endgame


In my opinion, it is essential for the left to draw lessons from all this accumulated experience. I like to pose the question as the end of a chess game in which only the two kings and two knights of the same colour are on the board. In these cases, the game is considered a draw. However, a paradox occurs. Theoretically, it is still possible to reach a checkmate position as the one shown in the diagram. However, the game is considered a draw because a checkmate position like the one shown in the diagram is only obtained if the player who only has his king collaborates with the player who has both knights. If the player with only the king on the board does not cooperate, checkmate is impossible. The same applies to the question at hand. The states that allow the existence of private ownership of the means of production collapse if they are incompetently governed. States with private ownership of the means of production do not collapse if they create sufficient aggregate demand through their spending policies via public deficits and if they intervene in the economy through a strong public sector presence that guarantees high levels of welfare for their citizens. The collapse of capitalism in Russia and the rise of National Socialism in Germany were only possible because of the manifest incompetence of Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II respectively; likewise, the collapse of capitalism in the USA due to the Great Recession of 1929 was only prevented by public intervention through the New Deal. We are currently witnessing a similar event in the European Union. To combat the COVID pandemic, the EU has decided to suspend its absurd and reactionary deficit limits. It has done so because the pandemic threatened the existence of capitalism itself in the EU. As soon as the pandemic passes, the EU will re-impose its deficit limits so that its model of mercantilist capitalism continues to guarantee the privileges of the export elites and continues to condemn the working majority to suboptimal living standards.

Does this mean that we should renounce socialism, that the attempt at a socialist transformation of the economy and society as a whole is a waste of time? Not at all. To renounce socialism is to renounce a better life. Keynes himself writes: “it is an outstanding characteristic of the economic system in which we live that, whilst it is subject to severe fluctuations in respect of output and employment, it is not violently unstable. Indeed, it seems capable of remaining in a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse. Moreover, the evidence indicates that full, or even approximately full, employment is of rare and short-lived occurrence. Fluctuations may start briskly but seem to wear themselves out before they have proceeded to great extremes, and an intermediate situation which is neither desperate nor satisfactory is our normal lot”. We socialists cannot resign ourselves to living under this order of things. To conclude this article I would like to present very succinctly a proposal, which I have elsewhere called fiat socialism, as an alternative path towards the socialist transformation of society and which I hope will soon take the form of a book so that it can be presented more widely.

To begin with, the two opponents must shake hands and accept that the game is a draw. Socialists have to accept that there are no historical laws and capitalists have to accept that the most they can offer are unsatisfactory solutions to major social problems. Then the pieces have to be put in place to start a new game.

We have to start asking ourselves, what does it mean that there are no historical laws? Historical laws like the one expounded by Marx conceive history as the development of a law towards whose essence (idea) humanity flows over time. Therefore, the essence (the idea) is placed at the end of a process towards which humanity tends inexorably. This scheme followed by Marx was adopted first by Aristotle and then by Hegel as opposed to Plato and Kant respectively and must be abandoned by the left. This means that we must return to Kant and abandon Hegel. There are no inexorable historical laws governing the destiny of humanity; the human being is not an actor whose mission is to hasten the birth pangs of a new society predetermined from the beginning of history. On the contrary, we must start from a primaeval idea from which our political activity is derived. This entails establishing our goals as the premises of our politics. We believe that these premises are correct, but we cannot be sure of this and we do not even know if they will become a reality. The truth or falsity of our premises will have to be corroborated by free and democratic elections. In the specific case of socialism, we have to start from a definition that does not reflect any inexorable historical law but the ends we defend. I propose that those ends should be those set out by the American economist Stuart Chase, who in his 1942 book “The Road We Are Traveling” says that all economic policy must meet five fundamental objectives:

  • guaranteed and permanent full employment
  • full and prudent use of natural resources
  • a guarantee of food, shelter, clothing, health services and education to every citizen
  • social security in the form of pensions and subsidies
  • a guarantee of decent labour standards.

If we look at all but the second point, which has to do with the preservation of nature, these have been fundamental axes of socialism in all its forms, from the socialism of the Soviet Constitution as the first binding legal document that included guaranteed work, to the socialism of the welfare systems, which both in the former socialist bloc and in the advanced societies of the West guaranteed access to the services set out by Chase. In fact, it was the defence of these five points that enabled the left to survive the demise of the Soviet Union, and in terms of environmental protection, the left has already incorporated the Green New Deal to its ideas. Furthermore, these five points were fundamental in non-Soviet socialist experiences of great importance that we cannot forget, such as that of Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran, the Arab socialism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Ba’ath Party, the experience of Olof Palme in Sweden, of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, of Patrice Lumumba in Congo, of Salvador Allende in Chile, of Evo Morales in Bolivia, of Jaime Roldós Aguilera in Ecuador, of Maurice Bishop in Grenada or of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, among others. It is, therefore, these five points and their achievement that we must call socialism, not a system in which, regardless of the achievement of these five points, but in accordance with a historical law, there is no private ownership of the means of production or in which the surplus value is equal to zero. Both the size of the private sector and the levels of surplus value must be decided by the citizenry democratically. There will be places where, in accordance with the different cultural traditions of their constituents, socialist organizations will advocate the achievement of these five points through greater or lesser involvement of the private sector. Likewise, workers, in return for guaranteed work, good wages, adequate social benefits and not having to take the risks involved in private entrepreneurship, will tolerate a greater or lesser degree of surplus value. What is important is that they have in their hands the democratic mechanisms necessary to control these levels. In my view, the best mechanism for this are the job guarantees based on employment buffer stocks advocated by modern monetary theory.

This leads us to the last section of this article, the one devoted to the method. In my view, the best method to achieve the five goals of socialism outlined above without creating runaway inflation is modern monetary theory. As its founder, the Australian economist Bill Mitchell, says, this economic school is not a political regime, but a lens through which economic science can be focused in the right way. Modern monetary theory tells us the method for employing all the real resources of the economy while maintaining price stability. The full employment of these resources can be directed towards the objectives that are decided politically. My proposal is to direct the full employment of real resources to the five objectives set out above and to give this employment the name of socialism.

I am therefore of the opinion that a new definition of socialism should be put forward. Currently, the Spanish Royal Academy of Language defines socialism as: “Social and economic system based on collective or state ownership and administration of the means of production and of distribution of goods”. This definition is filled with notions from historical laws, whose existence we have previously denied. I, therefore, propose that a new definition of socialism be: Social and economic system which, through modern monetary theory, provides guaranteed and permanent full employment, full and prudent use of natural resources, a guarantee of food, shelter, clothing, health services and education to every citizen, social security in the form of pensions and subsidies, and a guarantee of decent labour standards.

As I have said, I have called this in the past fiat socialism, but it could also be called flexible socialism, as it frees socialism from the rigidities imposed by historical law. This socialism will take different forms in different places, it accepts that socialist organizations are not exempt from making mistakes, it will involve different levels of participation by the private sector, as well as different levels in the gross operating surpluses, and it is open to processes of improvement in order to mobilize real resources in the best possible way to achieve the five ends of socialism. Only one rigidity is established: monetary sovereignty. Modern monetary theory is only valid in monetary systems where the state is the sovereign issuer of its currency and where there is an appropriate coordination between the Central Bank and the Treasury. If Archimedes in ancient Greece said give me a point of support and I will move the world, a socialist Archimedes would say give me monetary sovereignty and I will build you socialism. Without the point of support of monetary sovereignty, the proposal of socialism as explained above is not possible. In most parts of the world, this is not a problem because monetary sovereignty is already in place, but in the European Union this is the main stumbling block to any socialist transformation of the economy. Therefore, in Spain, the first step towards socialism would be to abandon the European Union and the euro.

Euro delendus est.

Carlos García Hernández – editor of Lola Books publishing house.











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