On the

crisis of capitalism


"In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity--the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce...

And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented". [Marx/Engels: "Communist Manifesto"]



"Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!...save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake: by this formula classical economy [the original bourgeois economics] expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth".

[Marx, Capitel, Volume I]





In Capital, Marx argues that capitalism

"dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the laborer…it constantly threatens...to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and...make him superfluous. We have seen... how this [class] antagonism vents its rage...in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working class, in the most reckless squandering of labor power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity".

[Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 16, Section 9]




According to Marx, the capitalist

"shares with the miser the passion for wealth as wealth. But that which in the miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist the effect of the social mechanism of which he is but one of the wheels…. [T]he development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of the capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the...laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation".

[Marx: Capital, Volume I, Chapter 24, Section 3]



"[W]hat appears as a crisis on the money-market is in reality an expression of abnormal conditions in the very process of production and reproduction."

(Marx: Capital Volume II, Chapter 16: The Turnover of Variable Capital)






Marx put it in Capital:

"as soon as all the surplus labor...possible to squeeze out has been embodied in commodities, surplus value has been produced. But this production of surplus value completes but the first act of the capitalist process of production–the direct production process. Capital has absorbed so and so much unpaid labor…. Now comes the second act of the process. The entire mass of commodities, i.e., the total product...must be sold. If this is not done, or done only in part, or only at prices below the prices of production, the laborer has been indeed exploited, but his exploitation is not realized as such for the capitalist.... The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realizing it, are not identical".

"the entire mass of commodities, i.e., the total product...must be sold."

"violent price fluctuations...cause interruptions, great collisions, even catastrophes, in the process."

As Marx argues, "since the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit…a rift must continually ensue between the limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism and a production which forever tends to exceed this immanent barrier."

[Capital, Volume III, Chapter 15, Section 1]





According to Marx:

" There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass.... There are not too many means of production produced to employ the able-bodied portion of the population. Quite the reverse.... [N]ot enough means of production are produced to permit the employment of the entire able-bodied population under the most productive conditions, so that their absolute working period could be shortened.... On the other hand, too many means of labor and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of laborers at a certain rate of profit...i.e., too many to permit of the consummation of this process without constantly recurring explosions.... Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms."

[ Capital, Volume III, Chapter 15, Section 3]





Karl Marx


"[E]very individual industrial manufacturer and merchant gets around the necessity of keeping a large reserve fund and being dependent upon his actual returns. On the other hand, the whole process becomes so complicated, partly by simply manipulating bills of exchange [i.e., checks and promises of future payment], partly by commodity transactions for the sole purpose of manufacturing bills of exchange, that the semblance of a very solvent business with a smooth flow of returns can easily persist even long after returns actually come in only at the expense partly of swindled money-lenders and partly of swindled producers. Thus business always appears almost excessively sound right on the eve of a crash."

[Marx, Capital III]



Capital Vol. III Part V
Division of Profit into Interest and Profit of Enterprise. Interest-Bearing Capital

Chapter 30.

Money-Capital and Real Capital.



The only difficult questions, which we are now approaching in connection with the credit system, are the following:

First: The accumulation of the actual money-capital. To what extent is it, and to what extent is it not, an indication of an actual accumulation of capital, i.e., of reproduction on an extended scale? Is the so-called plethora of capital — an expression used only with reference to the interest-bearing capital, i.e., moneyed capital — only a special way of expressing industrial over-production, or does it constitute a separate phenomenon alongside of it? Does this plethora, or excessive supply of money-capital, coincide with the existence of stagnating masses of money (bullion, gold coin and bank-notes), so that this superabundance of actual money is the expression and external form of that plethora of loan capital?

Secondly: To what extent does a scarcity of money, i.e., a shortage of loan capital, express a shortage of real capital (commodity-capital and productive capital)? To what extent does it coincide, on the other hand, with a shortage of money as such, a shortage of the medium of circulation?

In so far as we have hitherto considered the peculiar form of accumulation of money-capital and of money wealth in general, it has resolved itself into an accumulation of claims of ownership upon labour. The accumulation of the capital of the national debt has been revealed to mean merely an increase in a class of state creditors, who have the privilege of a firm claim upon a certain portion of the tax revenue.[1] By means of these facts, whereby even an accumulation of debts may appear as an accumulation of capital, the height of distortion taking place in the credit system becomes apparent. These promissory notes, which are issued for the originally loaned capital long since spent, these paper duplicates of consumed capital, serve for their owners as capital to the extent that they are saleable commodities and may, therefore, be reconverted into capital.

Titles of ownership to public works, railways, mines, etc., are indeed, as we have also seen, titles to real capital. But they do not place this capital at one's disposal. It is not subject to withdrawal. They merely convey legal claims to a portion of the surplus-value to be produced by it. But these titles likewise become paper duplicates of the real capital; it is as though a bill of lading were to acquire a value separate from the cargo, both concomitantly and simultaneously with it. They come to nominally represent non-existent capital. For the real capital exists side by side with them and does not change hands as a result of the transfer of these duplicates from one person to another. They assume the form of interest-bearing capital, not only because they guarantee a certain income, but also because, through their sale, their repayment as capital-values can be obtained. To the extent that the accumulation of this paper expresses the accumulation of railways, mines, steamships, etc., to that extent does it express the extension of the actual reproduction process — just as the extension of, for example, a tax list on movable property indicates the expansion of this property. But as duplicates which are themselves objects of transactions as commodities, and thus able to circulate as capital-values, they are illusory, and their value may fall or rise quite independently of the movement of value of the real capital for which they are titles. Their value, that is, their quotation on the Stock Exchange, necessarily has a tendency to rise with a fall in the rate of interest — in so far as this fall, independent of the characteristic movements of money-capital, is due merely to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall; therefore, this imaginary wealth expands, if for this reason alone, in the course of capitalist production in accordance with the expressed value for each of its aliquot parts of specific original nominal value.[2]

Gain and loss through fluctuations in the price of these titles of ownership, and their centralisation in the hands of railway kings, etc., become, by their very nature, more and more a matter of gamble, which appears to take the place of labour as the original method of acquiring capital wealth and also replaces naked force. This type of imaginary money wealth not only constitutes a very considerable part of the money wealth of private people, but also of banker’s capital, as we have already indicated.

In order to quickly settle this question, let us point out that one could also mean by the accumulation of money-capital the accumulation of wealth in the hands of bankers (money-lenders by profession), acting as middlemen between private money-capitalists on the one hand, and the state, communities, and reproducing borrowers on the other. For the entire vast extension of the credit system, and all credit in general, is exploited by them as their private capital. These fellows always possess capital and incomes in money-form or in direct claims on money. The accumulation of the wealth of this class may take place completely differently than actual accumulation, but it proves at any rate that this class pockets a good deal of the real accumulation.

Let us reduce the scope of the problem before us. Government securities, like stocks and other securities of all kinds, are spheres of investment for loanable capital — capital intended for bearing interest. They are forms of loaning such capital. But they themselves are not the loan capital, which is invested in them. On the other hand, in so far as credit plays a direct role in the reproduction process, what the industrialist or merchant needs when he wishes to have a bill discounted or a loan granted is neither stocks nor government securities. What he needs is money. He, therefore, pledges or sells those securities if he cannot secure money in any other way. It is the accumulation of this loan capital with which we have to deal here, and more particularly accumulation of loanable money-capital. We are not concerned here with loans of houses, machines, or other fixed capital. Nor are we concerned with the advances industrialists and merchants make to one another in commodities and within the compass of the reproduction process; although we must also investigate this point beforehand in more detail. We are concerned exclusively with money loans, which are made by bankers, as middlemen, to industrialists and merchants.

Let us then, to begin with, analyse commercial credit, that is, the credit which the capitalists engaged in reproduction give to one another. It forms the basis of the credit system. It is represented by the bill of exchange, a promissory note with a definite term of payment, i.e., a document of deferred payment. Everyone gives credit with one hand and receives credit with the other. Let us completely disregard, for the present, banker’s credit, which constitutes an entirely different sphere. To the extent that these bills of exchange circulate among the merchants themselves as means of payment again, by endorsement from one to another — without, however, the mediation of discounting — it is merely a transfer of the claim from A to B and does not change the picture in the least. It merely replaces one person by another. And even in this case, the liquidation can take place without the intervention of money. Spinner A, for example, has to pay a bill to cotton broker B, and the latter to importer C. Now, if C also exports yarn, which happens often enough, he may buy yarn from A on a bill of exchange and the spinner A may pay the broker B with the broker’s own bill which was received in payment from C. At most, a balance will have to be paid in money. The entire transaction then consists merely in the exchange of cotton and yarn. The exporter represents only the spinner, and the cotton broker, the cotton planter.

Two things are now to be noted in the circuit of this purely commercial credit.

First: The settlement of these mutual claims depends upon the return flow of capital, that is, on C — M, which is merely deferred. If the spinner has received a bill of exchange from a cotton goods manufacturer, then manufacturer can pay if the cotton goods which he has on the market have been sold in the interim. If the corn speculator has a bill of exchange drawn upon his agent, the agent can pay the money if the corn has been sold in the interim at the expected price. These payments, therefore, depend on the fluidity of reproduction, that is, the production and consumption processes. But since the credits are mutual, the solvency of one depends upon the solvency of another; for in drawing his bill of exchange, one may have counted either on the return flow of the capital in his own business or on the return flow of the capital in a third party’s business whose bill of exchange is due in the meantime. Aside from the prospect of return flow of capital, payment can only be possible by means of reserve capital at the disposal of the person drawing the bill of exchange, in order to meet his obligations in case the return flow of capital should be delayed.

Secondly: This credit system does not do away with the necessity for cash payments. For one thing, a large portion of expenses must always be paid in cash, e.g., wages, taxes, etc. Furthermore, capitalist B, who has received from C a bill of exchange in place of cash payment, may have to pay a bill of his own which has fallen due to D before C’s bill becomes due, and so he must have ready cash. A complete circuit of reproduction as that assumed above, i.e., from cotton planter to cotton spinner and back again, can only constitute an exception; it will be constantly interrupted at many points. We have seen in the discussion of the reproduction process (Vol II, Part III) that the producers of constant capital exchange, in part, constant capital among themselves. As a result, the bills of exchange can, more or less, balance each other out. Similarly, in the ascending line of production, where the cotton broker draws on the cotton spinner, the spinner on the manufacturer of cotton goods, the manufacturer on the exporter, the exporter on the importer (perhaps of cotton again). But the circuit of transactions, and, therefore, the turn about of the series of claims, does not take place at the same time. For example, the claim of the spinner on the weaver is not settled by the claim of the coal-dealer on the machine-builder. The spinner never has any counter-claims on the machine-builder, in his business, because his product, yarn, never enters as an element in the machine-builder’s reproduction process. Such claims must, therefore, be settled by money.

The limits of this commercial credit, considered by themselves, are 1) the wealth of the industrialists and merchants, that is, their command of reserve capital in case of delayed returns; 2) these returns themselves. These returns may be delayed, or the prices of commodities may fall in the meantime or the commodities may become momentarily unsaleable due to a stagnant market. The longer the bills of exchange run, the larger must be the reserve capital, and the greater the possibility of a diminution or delay of the returns through a fall in prices or a glut on the market. And, furthermore, the returns are so much less secure, the more the original transaction was conditioned upon speculation on the rise or fall of commodity-prices. But it is evident that with the development of the productive power of labour, and thus of production on a large scale: 1) the markets expand and become more distant from the place of production; 2) credits must, therefore, be prolonged; 3) the speculative element must thus more and more dominate the transactions. Production on a large scale and for distant markets throws the total product into the hands of commerce; but it is impossible that the capital of a nation should double itself in such a manner that commerce should itself be able to buy up the entire national product with its own capital and to sell it again. Credit is, therefore, indispensable here; credit, whose volume grows with the growing volume of value of production and whose time duration grows with the increasing distance of the markets. A mutual interaction takes place here. The development of the production process extends the credit, and credit leads to an extension of industrial and commercial operations.

When we examine this credit detached from banker’s credit, it is evident that it grows with an increasing volume of industrial capital itself. Loan capital and industrial capital are identical here. The loaned capital is commodity-capital which is intended either for ultimate individual consumption or for the replacement of the constant elements of productive capital. What appears here as loan capital is always capital existing in some definite phase of the reproduction process, but which by means of purchase and sale passes from one person to another, while its equivalent is not paid by the buyer until some later stipulated time. For example, cotton is transferred to the spinner for a bill of exchange, yarn to the manufacturer of cotton goods for a bill of exchange, cotton goods to the merchant for a bill, from whose hands they go to the exporter for a bill, and then, for a bill to some merchant in India, who sells the goods and buys indigo instead, etc. During this transfer from hand to hand the transformation of cotton into cotton goods is effected, and the cotton goods are finally transported to India and exchanged for indigo, which is shipped to Europe and there enters into the reproduction process again. The various phases of the reproduction process are promoted here by credit, without any payment on the part of the spinner for the cotton, the manufacturer of cotton goods for the yarn, the merchant for the cotton goods, etc. In the first stages of the process, the commodity, cotton, goes through its various production phases, and this transition is promoted by credit. But as soon as the cotton has received in production its ultimate form as a commodity, the same commodity-capital passes only through the hands of various merchants who promote its transportation to distant markets, and the last of whom finally sells these commodities to the consumer and buys other commodities in their stead, which either become consumed or go into the reproduction process. It is necessary, then, to differentiate between two stages here:

In the first stage, credit promotes the actual successive phases in the production of the same article; in the second, credit merely promotes the transfer of the article, including its transportation, from one merchant to another, in other words, the process C — M. But here also the commodity is at least in the process of circulation, that is, in a phase of the reproduction process.

It follows, then, that it is never idle capital which is loaned here, but capital which must change its form in the hands of its owner; it exists in a form that for him is merely commodity-capital, i.e., capital which must be retransformed, and, to begin with, at least converted into money. It is, therefore, the metamorphosis of commodities that is here promoted by credit; not merely C — M, but also M — C and the actual production process. A large quantity of credit within the reproductive circuit (banker’s credit excepted) does not signify a large quantity of idle capital, which is being offered for loan and is seeking profitable investment. It means rather a large employment of capital in the reproduction process. Credit, then, promotes here 1) as far as the industrial capitalists are concerned, the transition of industrial capital from one phase into another, the connection of related and dovetailing spheres of production; 2) as far as the merchants are concerned, the transportation and transition of commodities from one person to another until their definite sale for money or their exchange for other commodities.

The maximum of credit is here identical with the fullest employment of industrial capital, that is, the utmost exertion of its reproductive power without regard to the limits of consumption. These limits of consumption are extended by the exertions of the reproduction process itself. On the one hand, this increases the consumption of revenue on the part of labourers and capitalists, on the other hand, it is identical with an exertion of productive consumption.

As long as the reproduction process is continuous and, therefore, the return flow assured, this credit exists and expands, and its expansion is based upon the expansion of the reproduction process itself. As soon as a stoppage takes place, as a result of delayed returns, glutted markets, or fallen prices, a superabundance of industrial capital becomes available, but in a form in which it cannot perform its functions. Huge quantities of commodity-capital, but unsaleable. Huge quantities of fixed capital, but largely idle due to stagnant reproduction. Credit is contracted 1) because this capital is idle, i.e., blocked in one of its phases of reproduction because it cannot complete its metamorphosis; 2) because confidence in the continuity of the reproduction process has been shaken; 3) because the demand for this commercial credit diminishes. The spinner, who curtails his production and has a large quantity of unsold yarn in stock, does not need to buy any cotton on credit; the merchant does not need to buy any commodities on credit because he has more than enough of them.

Hence, if there is a disturbance in this expansion or even in the normal flow of the reproduction process, credit also becomes scarce; it is more difficult to obtain commodities on credit. However, the demand for cash payment and the caution observed toward sales on credit are particularly characteristic of the phase of the industrial cycle following a crash. During the crisis itself, since everyone has products to sell, cannot sell them, and yet must sell them in order to meet payments, it is not the mass of idle and investment-seeking capital, but rather the mass of capital impeded in its reproduction process, that is greatest just when the shortage of credit is most acute (and therefore the rate of discount highest for banker’s credit). The capital already invested is then, indeed, idle in large quantities because the reproduction process is stagnant. Factories are closed, raw materials accumulate, finished products flood the market as commodities. Nothing is more erroneous, therefore, than to blame a scarcity of productive capital for such a condition. It is precisely at such times that there is a superabundance of productive capital, partly in relation to the normal, but temporarily reduced scale of reproduction, and partly in relation to the paralysed consumption.

Let us suppose that the whole of society is composed only of industrial capitalists and wage-workers. Let us furthermore disregard price fluctuations, which prevent large portions of the total capital from replacing themselves in their average proportions and which, owing to the general interrelations of the entire reproduction process as developed in particular by credit, must always call forth general stoppages of a transient nature. Let us also disregard the sham transactions and speculations, which the credit system favours. Then, a crisis could only be explained as the result of a disproportion of production in various branches of the economy, and as a result of a disproportion between the consumption of the capitalists and their accumulation. But as matters stand, the replacement of the capital invested in production depends largely upon the consuming power of the non-producing classes; while the consuming power of the workers is limited partly by the laws of wages, partly by the fact that they are used only as long as they can be profitably employed by the capitalist class. The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.

A real lack of productive capital, at least among capitalistically developed nations, can be said to exist only in times of general crop failures, either in the principal foodstuffs or in the principal industrial raw materials.

However, in addition to this commercial credit we have actual money credit. The advances of the industrialists and merchants among one another are amalgamated with the money advances made to them by the bankers and money-lenders. In discounting bills of exchange the advance is only nominal. A manufacturer sells his product for a bill of exchange and gets this bill discounted by some bill-broker. In reality, the latter advances only the credit of his banker, who in turn advances to the broker the money-capital of his depositors. The depositors consist of the industrial capitalists and merchants themselves and also of workers (through savings-banks) — as well as ground-rent recipients and other unproductive classes. In this way every individual industrial manufacturer and merchant gets around the necessity of keeping a large reserve fund and being dependent upon his actual returns. On the other hand, the whole process becomes so complicated, partly by simply manipulating bills of exchange, partly by commodity transactions for the sole purpose of manufacturing bills of exchange, that the semblance of a very solvent business with a smooth flow of returns can easily persist even long after returns actually come in only at the expense partly of swindled money-lenders and partly of swindled producers. Thus business always appears almost excessively sound right on the eve of a crash. The best proof of this is furnished, for instance, by the Reports on Bank Acts of 1857 and 1858, in which all bank directors, merchants, in short all the invited experts with Lord Overstone at their head, congratulated one another on the prosperity and soundness of business — just one month before the outbreak of the crisis in August 1857. And, strangely enough, Tooke in his History of Prices succumbs to this illusion once again as historian for each crisis. Business is always thoroughly sound and the campaign in full swing, until suddenly the debacle takes place.



We revert now to the accumulation of money-capital.

Not every augmentation of loanable money-capital indicates a real accumulation of capital or expansion of the reproduction process. This becomes most evident in the phase of the industrial cycle immediately following a crisis, when loan capital lies around idle in great quantities. At such times, when the production process is curtailed (production in the English industrial districts was reduced by one-third after the crisis of 1847), when the prices of commodities are at their lowest level, when the spirit of enterprise is paralysed, the rate of interest is low, which in this case indicates nothing more than an increase in loanable capital precisely as a result of contraction and paralysation of industrial capital. It is quite obvious that a smaller quantity of a circulation medium is required when the prices of commodities have fallen, the number of transactions decreased, and the capital laid out for wages reduced; that, on the other hand, no additional money is required to function as world-money after foreign debts have been liquidated either by the export of gold or as a result of bankruptcies; that, finally, the volume of business connected with discounting bills of exchange diminishes in proportion with the reduced number and magnitudes of the bills of exchange them-selves. Hence the demand for loanable money-capital, either to act as a medium of circulation or as a means of payment (the investment of new capital is still out of the question), decreases and this capital, therefore, becomes relatively abundant. Under such circumstances, however, the supply of loanable money-capital also increases, as we shall later see.

Thus, the situation after the crisis of 1847 was characterised by "a limitation of transaction and a great superabundance of money." (Commercial Distress, 1847-48, Evidence No. 1664.) The rate of interest was very low because of the "almost perfect destruction of commerce and the almost total want of means of employing money" (loc. cit., p. 45, testimony of Hodgson, Director of the Royal Bank of Liverpool). What nonsense these gentlemen concocted (and Hodgson is, moreover, one of the best of them) in order to explain these facts, can be seen from the following remark:

"The pressure" (1847) "arose from the real diminution of the moneyed capital of the country, caused partly by the necessity of paying in gold for imports from all parts of the world, and partly by the absorption of floating into fixed capital." [1. c., p. 39.]

How the conversion of floating capital into fixed capital reduces the money-capital of a country is unintelligible. For, in the case of railways, e.g., in which capital was mainly invested at that time, neither gold nor paper is used for viaducts and rails, and the money for the railway stocks, to the extent that it had been deposited solely in payment, performed exactly the same functions as any other money deposited in banks and even increased the loanable money-capital temporarily, as already shown above; but to the extent that it had actually been spent for construction, it circulated in the country as a medium of purchase and of payment. Only in so far as fixed capital cannot be exported, so that with the impossibility of its export the available capital secured from returns for exported articles also drops out of the picture — including the returns in cash or bullion — only to that extent could the money-capital be affected. But at that time English export articles were also piled up in huge quantities on the foreign markets without being able to be sold. It is true, the floating capital of the merchants and manufacturers of Manchester, etc., who had a portion of their normal business capital tied up in railway stocks and were therefore dependent upon borrowed capital for running their business, had become fixed, and they, therefore, had to suffer the consequences. But it would have been the same, if the capital belonging to their business, but withdrawn from it, had been invested, say, in mines instead of railways-mining products like iron, coal, copper being themselves in turn floating capital. The actual reduction of available money-capital through crop failures, corn imports, and gold exports constituted, naturally, an event that had nothing to do with the railway swindle.

"Almost all mercantile houses had begun to starve their business more or less ... by taking part of their commercial capital for railways." — "Loans to so great an extent by commercial houses to railways [loc. cit., p. 42] induced them to lean too much upon... banks by the discount of paper, whereby to carry on their commercial operations" (the same Hodgson, loc. cit., p. 67). "In Manchester there have been immense losses in consequence of the speculation in railways" (R. Gardner, previously cited in Vol. I, Ch. XIII, 3, c, and in several other places; Evidence No. 4884, loc. cit.).

One of the principal causes of the crisis of 1847 was the colossal flooding of the market and the fabulous swindle in the East Indian trade with commodities. But there were also other circumstances which bankrupted very rich firms in this line:

"They had large means, but not available. The whole of their capital was locked up in estates in the Mauritius, or indigo factories, or sugar factories. Having incurred liabilities to the extent of £500,000-600,000, they had no available assets to pay their bills, and eventually it proved that to pay their bills they were entirely dependent upon their credit." (Ch. Turner, big East Indian merchant in Liverpool, No. 730, loc. cit.)

See also Gardner (No. 4872, loc. cit.):

"Immediately after the China treaty, so great a prospect was held out to the country of a great extension of our commerce with China, that there were many large mills built with a view to that trade exclusively, in order to manufacture that class of cloth which is principally taken for the China market, and our previous manufactures had the addition of all those." — "4874. How has that trade turned out? — Most ruinous, almost beyond description; I do not believe, that of the whole of the shipments that were made in 1844 and 1845 to China, above two-thirds of the amount have ever been returned; in consequence of tea being the principal article of repayment and of the expectation that was held out, we, as manufacturers, fully calculated upon a great reduction in the duty on tea."

And now, naively expressed, comes the characteristic credo of the English manufacturer:

"Our commerce with no foreign market is limited by their power to purchase the commodity, but it is limited in this country by our capability of consuming that which we receive in return for our manufactures."

(The relatively poor countries, with whom England trades, are, of course, able to pay for and consume any amount of English products, but unfortunately wealthy England cannot assimilate the products sent in return.)

"4876. I sent out some goods in the first instance, and the goods sold at about 45 per cent loss, from the full conviction that the price, at which my agents could purchase tea, would leave so great a profit in this country as to make up the deficiency... but instead of profit, I lost in some instances 25 and up to 50 per cent." — "4877. Did the manufacturers generally export on their own account? — Principally; the merchants, I think, very soon saw that the thing would not answer, and they rather encouraged the manufacturers to consign than take a direct interest themselves."

In 1857, on the other hand, the losses and failures fell mainly upon the merchants, since the manufacturers left them the task of flooding the foreign markets "on their own account."

An expansion of money-capital, which arises out of the fact that, in view of the expansion of banking (see, below, the example of Ipswich, where in the course of a few years immediately preceding 1857 the deposits of the capitalist farmers quadrupled), what was formerly a private hoard or coin reserve is always converted into loanable capital for a definite time, does not indicate a growth in productive capital any more than the increasing deposits with the London stock banks when the latter began to pay interest on deposits. As long as the scale of production remains the same, this expansion leads only to an abundance of loanable money-capital as compared with the productive. Hence the low rate of interest.

After the reproduction process has again reached that state of prosperity which precedes that of over-exertion, commercial credit becomes very much extended; this forms, indeed, the "sound" basis again for a ready flow of returns and extended production. In this state the rate of interest is still low, although it rises above its minimum. This is, in fact, the only time that it can be said a low rate of interest, and consequently a relative abundance of loanable capital, coincides with a real expansion of industrial capital. The ready flow and regularity of the returns, linked with extensive commercial credit, ensures the supply of loan capital in spite of the increased demand for it, and prevents the level of the rate of interest from rising. On the other hand, those cavaliers who work without any reserve capital or without any capital at all and who thus operate completely on a money credit basis begin to appear for the first time in considerable numbers. To this is now added the great expansion of fixed capital in all forms, and the opening of new enterprises on a vast and far-reaching scale. The interest now rises to its average level. It reaches its maximum again as soon as the new crisis sets in. Credit suddenly stops then, payments are suspended, the reproduction process is paralysed, and with the previously mentioned exceptions, a superabundance of idle industrial capital appears side by side with an almost absolute absence of loan capital.

On the whole, then, the movement of loan capital, as expressed in the rate of interest, is in the opposite direction to that of industrial capital. The phase wherein a low rate of interest, but above the minimum, coincides with the "improvement" and growing confidence after a crisis, and particularly the phase wherein the rate of interest reaches its average level, exactly midway between its minimum and maximum, are the only two periods during which an abundance of loan capital is available simultaneously with a great expansion of industrial capital. But at the beginning of the industrial cycle, a low rate of interest coincides with a contraction, and at the end of the industrial cycle, a high rate of interest coincides with a superabundance of industrial capital. The low rate of interest that accompanies the "improvement" shows that the commercial credit requires bank credit only to a slight extent because it is still self-supporting.

The industrial cycle is of such a nature that the same circuit must periodically reproduce itself, once the first impulse has been given.[3] During a period of slack, production sinks below the level, which it had attained in the preceding cycle and for which the technical basis has now been laid. During prosperity — the middle period — it continues to develop on this basis. In the period of over-production and swindle, it strains the productive forces to the utmost, until it exceeds the capitalistic limits of the production process.

It is clear that there is a shortage of means of payment during a period of crisis. The convertibility of bills of exchange replaces the metamorphosis of commodities themselves, and so much more so exactly at such times the more a portion of the firms operates on pure credit. Ignorant and mistaken bank legislation, such as that of 1844-45, can intensify this money crisis. But no kind of bank legislation can eliminate a crisis.

In a system of production, where the entire continuity of the reproduction process rests upon credit, a crisis must obviously occur — a tremendous rush for means of payment — when credit suddenly ceases and only cash payments have validity. At first glance, therefore, the whole crisis seems to be merely a credit and money crisis. And in fact it is only a question of the convertibility of bills of exchange into money. But the majority of these bills represent actual sales and purchases, whose extension far beyond the needs of society is, after all, the basis of the whole crisis. At the same time, an enormous quantity of these bills of exchange represents plain swindle, which now reaches the light of day and collapses; furthermore, unsuccessful speculation with the capital of other people; finally, commodity-capital which has depreciated or is completely unsaleable, or returns that can never more be realised again. The entire artificial system of forced expansion of the reproduction process cannot, of course, be remedied by having some bank, like the Bank of England, give to all the swindlers the deficient capital by means of its paper and having it buy up all the depreciated commodities at their old nominal values. Incidentally, everything here appears distorted, since in this paper world, the real price and its real basis appear nowhere, but only bullion, metal coin, notes, bills of exchange, securities. Particularly in centres where the entire money business of the country is concentrated, like London, does this distortion become apparent; the entire process becomes incomprehensible; it is less so in centres of production.

Incidentally in connection with the superabundance of industrial capital which appears during crises the following should be noted: commodity-capital is in itself simultaneously money-capital, that is, a definite amount of value expressed in the price of the commodities. As use-value it is a definite quantum of objects of utility, and there is a surplus of these available in times of crises. But as money-capital as such, as potential money-capital, it is subject to continual expansion and contraction. On the eve of a crisis, and during it, commodity-capital in its capacity as potential money-capital is contracted. It represents less money-capital for its owner and his creditors (as well as security for bills of exchange and loans) than it did at the time when it was bought and when the discounts and mortgages based on it were transacted. If this is the meaning of the contention that the money-capital of a country is reduced in times of stringency, this is identical with saying that the prices of commodities have fallen. Such a collapse in prices merely balances out their earlier inflation.

The incomes of the unproductive classes and of those who live on fixed incomes remain in the main stationary during the inflation of prices which goes hand in hand with over-production and over-speculation. Hence their consuming capacity diminishes relatively, and with it their ability to replace that portion of the total reproduction which would normally enter into their consumption. Even when their demand remains nominally the same, it decreases in reality.

It should be noted in regard to imports and exports, that, one after another, all countries become involved in a crisis and that it then becomes evident that all of them, with few exceptions, have exported and imported too much, so that they all have an unfavourable balance of payments. The trouble, therefore, does not actually lie with the balance of payments. For example, England suffers from a drain of gold. It has imported too much. But at the same time all other countries are over-supplied with English goods. They have thus also imported too much, or have been made to import too much. (There is, indeed, a difference between a country which exports on credit and those which export little or nothing on credit. But the latter then import on credit; and this is only then not the case when commodities are sent to them on consignment.) The crisis may first break out in England, the country which advances most of the credit and takes the least, because the balance of payments, the balance of payments due, which must be settled immediately, is unfavourable, even though the general balance of trade is favourable. This is explained partly as a result of the credit which it has granted, and partly as a result of the huge quantity of capital loaned to foreign countries, so that a large quantity of returns flow back to it in commodities, in addition to the actual trade returns. (However, the crisis has at times first broken out in America, which takes most of the commercial and capital credit from England.) The crash in England, initiated and accompanied by a gold drain, settles England’s balance of payments, partly by a bankruptcy of its importers (about which more below), partly by disposing of a portion of its commodity-capital at low prices abroad, and partly by the sale of foreign securities, the purchase of English securities, etc. Now comes the turn of some other country. The balance of payments was momentarily in its favour; but now the time lapse normally existing between the balance of payments and balance of trade has been eliminated or at least reduced by the crisis: all payments are now suddenly supposed to be made at once. The same thing is now repeated here. England now has a return flow of gold, the other country a gold drain. What appears in one country as excessive imports, appears in the other as excessive exports, and vice versa. But over-imports and over-exports have taken place in all countries (we are not speaking here about crop failures, etc., but about a general crisis); that is over-production promoted by credit and the general inflation of prices that goes with it.

In 1857, the crisis broke out in the United States. A flow of gold from England to America followed. But as soon as the bubble in America burst, the crisis broke out in England and the gold flowed from America to England. The same took place between England and the continent. The balance of payments is in times of general crisis unfavourable to every nation, at least to every commercially developed nation, but always to each country in succession, as in volley firing, i.e., as soon as each one’s turn comes for making payments; and once the crisis has broken out, e.g., in England, it compresses the series of these terms into a very short period. It then becomes evident that all these nations have simultaneously over-exported (thus over-produced) and over-imported (thus over-traded), that prices were inflated in all of them, and credit stretched too far. And the same break-down takes place in all of them. The phenomenon of a gold drain then takes place successively in all of them and proves precisely by its general character 1) that gold drain is just a phenomenon of a crisis, not its cause; 2) that the sequence in which it hits the various countries indicates only when their judgement-day has come, i.e., when the crisis started and its latent elements come to the fore there.

It is characteristic of the English economic writers — and the economic literature worth mentioning since 1830 resolves itself mainly into a literature on currency, credit, and crises — that they look upon the export of precious metals in times of crisis, in spite of the turn in the rates of exchange, only from the standpoint of England, as a purely national phenomenon, and resolutely close their eyes to the fact that all other European banks raise their rate of interest when their bank raises its own in times of crisis, and that, when the cry of distress over the drain of gold is raised in their country today, it is taken up in America tomorrow and in Germany and France the day after.

In 1847, "the engagements running upon this country had to be met" [mostly for corn]. "Unfortunately, they were met to a great extent by failures" [wealthy England secured relief by bankruptcies in its obligations toward the continent and America], "but to the extent to which they were not met by failures, they were met by the exportation of bullion." (Report of Committee on Bank Acts, 1857.)

In other words, in so far as a crisis in England is intensified by bank legislation, this legislation is a means of cheating the corn-exporting countries in periods of famine, first on their corn and then on the money for the corn. A prohibition on the export of corn during such periods for countries which are themselves labouring more or less under scarcities, is, therefore, a very rational measure to thwart this plan of the Bank of England to "meet obligations" for corn imports "by bankruptcies." It is after all much better that the corn producers and speculators lose a portion of their profit for the good of their own country than their capital for the good of England.

It follows from the above that commodity-capital, during crises and during periods of business depression in general, loses to a large extent its capacity to represent potential money-capital. The same is true of fictitious capital, interest-bearing paper, in so far as it circulates on the stock exchange as money-capital. Its price falls with rising interest. It falls, furthermore, as a result of the general shortage of credit, which compels its owners to dump it in large quantities on the market in order to secure money. It falls, finally, in the case of stocks, partly as a result of the decrease in revenues for which it constitutes drafts and partly as a result of the spurious character of the enterprises which it often enough represents. This fictitious money-capital is enormously reduced in times of crisis, and with it the ability of its owners to borrow money on it on the market. However, the reduction of the money equivalents of these securities on the stock exchange list has nothing to do with the actual capital which they represent, but very much indeed with the solvency of their owners.




[1]. The public fund is nothing but imaginary capital, which represents that portion of the annual revenue, which is set aside to pay the debt. An equivalent amount of capital has been spent; it is this which serves as a denominator for the loan, but it is not this which is represented by the public fund; for the capital no longer exists. New wealth must be created by the work of industry; a portion of this wealth is annually set aside in advance for those who have loaned that wealth which has been spent; this portion is taken by means of taxes from those who produce it, and is given to the creditors of the state, and, according to the customary proportion between capital and interest in the country, an imaginary capital is assumed equivalent to that which could give rise to the annual income which these creditors are to receive. (Sismondi, Nouveaux principes [Seconde édition, Paris, 1827], II, p. 230.)


[2]. A portion of the accumulated loanable money-capital is indeed merely an expression of industrial capital. For instance, when England, in 1857, had invested 180 million in American railways and other enterprises, this investment was transacted almost completely by the export of English commodities for which the Americans did not have to make payment in return. The English exporter drew bills of exchange for these commodities on America, which the English stock subscribers bought up and which were sent to America for purchasing the stock subscriptions.


[3]. [As I have already stated elsewhere [English edition: Vol. I. — Ed.], a change has taken place here since the last major general crisis. The acute form of the periodic process with its former ten-year cycle, appears to have given way to a more chronic, long drawn out, alternation between a relatively short and slight business improvement and a relatively long, indecisive depression-taking place in the various industrial countries at different times. But perhaps it is only a matter of a prolongation of the duration of the cycle. In the early years of world commerce, 1845-47, it can be shown that these cycles lasted about five years; from 1847 to 1867 the cycle is clearly ten years; is it possible that we are now in the preparatory stage of a new world crash of unparalleled vehemence? Many things seem to point in this direction. Since the last general crisis of 1867 many profound changes have taken place. The colossal expansion of the means of transportation and communication — ocean liners, railways, electrical telegraphy, the Suez Canal — has made a real world-market a fact. The former monopoly of England in industry has been challenged by a number of competing industrial countries; infinitely greater and varied fields have been opened in all parts of the world for the investment of surplus European capital, so that it is far more widely distributed and local over-speculation may be more easily overcome. By means of all this, most of the old breeding-grounds of crises and opportunities for their development have been eliminated or strongly reduced. At the same time, competition in the domestic market recedes before the cartels and trusts, while in the foreign market it is restricted by protective tariffs, with which all major industrial countries, England excepted, surround themselves. But these protective tariffs are nothing but preparations for the ultimate general industrial war, which shall decide who has supremacy on the world-market. Thus every factor, which works against a repetition of the old crises, carries within itself the germ of a far more powerful future crisis. — F. E.]




“Since the mass of the employed living labour is continually on the decline as compared to the mass of materialised labour set in motion by it, i.e., to the productively consumed means of production, it follows that the portion of living labour, unpaid and congealed in surplus-value, must also be continually on the decrease compared to the amount of value represented by the invested total capital. Since the ratio of the mass of surplus-value to the value of the invested total capital forms the rate of profit, this rate must constantly fall.”
― Karl Marx -




“This mode of production produces a progressive relative decrease of the variable capital as compared to the constant capital, and consequently a continuously rising organic composition of the total capital. The immediate result of this is that the rate of surplus-value, at the same, or even a rising, degree of labour exploitation, is represented by a continually falling general rate of profit. (We shall see later why this fall does not manifest itself in an absolute form, but rather as a tendency toward a progressive fall.) The progressive tendency of the general rate of profit to fall is, therefore, just an expression peculiar to the capitalist mode of production of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour. This does not mean to say that the rate of profit may not fall temporarily for other reasons. But proceeding from the nature of the capitalist mode of production, it is thereby proved a logical necessity that in its development the general average rate of surplus-value must express itself in a falling general rate of profit. Since the mass of the employed living labour is continually on the decline as compared to the mass of materialised labour set in motion by it, i.e., to the productively consumed means of production, it follows that the portion of living labour, unpaid and congealed in surplus-value, must also be continually on the decrease compared to the amount of value represented by the invested total capital. Since the ratio of the mass of surplus-value to the value of the invested total capital forms the rate of profit, this rate must constantly fall.”


K. Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 3, translated from the German edition in Marx Engels Werke (‘MEW’) 25, p. 223 (emphasis in original)