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«An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories»: Anwar Shaikh


This paper is about the history of crisis theories. Broadly speaking, the term «crisis» as used here refers to a generalized set of failures in the economic and political relations of capitalist reproduction. In particular, the crises we seek to examine are those towards which the system is internally driven, by its own principles of operation. As we shall see, it is in the nature of capitalist production to be constantly exposed to a variety of internally and externally generated disturbances and dislocations. But only at certain times do these «shocks» set off general crises. When the system is healthy, it rapidly revives from all sorts of setbacks; when it is unhealthy, practically anything can trigger its collapse. What we seek to examine is different explanations of how and whyy the system periodically becomes unhealthy.

I Reproduction and Crisis

Consider how peculiar capitalist society is. It is a complex, interdependent social network, whose reproduction requires a precise pattern of complementarity among differen productive activities: and yet these activities are undertaken by hundreds of thousands of individual capitalists who are only concerned with their private greed for profit. Is is a class structure, in which the continued existence of the capitalist class requires the continued existence of the working class: and yet no blood lines, no tradition, no religious principle announces who is to rule and who is to be ruled. Is is a cooperative human comunity, and yet it ceaselessly pits each against the other: capitalist against worker, but also capitalist against capitalist and worker against worker.

The truly difficult question about such a society is not why it ever breaks down, but why it continues to function. In this regard, it is important to realize that any explanation oj how capitalism reproduces itself is at the same time (implicitly or explicitly) an answer to the question of hov an why non-reproduction occurs, and vice versa: in other words, the analysis of reproduction and the analysis of crisis are inseparable. This is true whether or not a particular theory makes this connection explicit.

In the history of economic thought, we can distinguish three basic lines of analysis about capitalist reproduction. First, and most pòpular, is the notion that capitalism is capable of automatic self-reproduction. It may be smooth and efficient (neoclassical theory), or it may be erratic and wasteful (Keynes), but it is self-equilibrating.

Above all, there are no necessary limits to the capitalist system or to its historical existence: if left to itself (neoclassical theory) or if properly managed (Keynes) it can last forever. Naturally, this has always been the dominant conception in bourgeois theory.

The second position takes the opposite tack: here, it is argued that by itself, the capitalist system is incapable of self-expansion. It must grow to survive, but it requires some external source of demand (like the non capitalist world) in order to keep it growing. This means that its reproduction is ultimately regulated by factor outside of the system: the limits to the system are external to it. The different schools of underconsumption, including Marxist ones, have their origin in this line of thought.

Lastly, there is the position that, though capitalism is capable of self-expansion, the acumulation process deepens the internal contradictions on which it is based, until they erupt in a crisis: the limits to capitalism are internal to it. This line is almost exclusively Marxist, and includes both «falling rate of profit» and «profit squeeze» explanations of crisis.

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