A perennial question for Marxists is how to overturn capitalism. Will institutional changes that improve the lot of workers but fall short of ending capitalism immediately help or harm this cause? To the extent that social struggle is a learning-by-doing process, it may be that the securing of small gains can whet the appetite for more significant gains and that institutional reforms of a transformational nature can place revolution on a more secure footing if and when it does occur. But there is also the possibility of complacency in which workers come to tolerate capitalism so long as their own situation is not so dire.
A while back on Facebook, or maybe it was twitter, someone asked what would be left for our own lives if artificial intelligence ever came to exceed our own.
What is the most appropriate entry point to the study of a monetary economy in which government is currency issuer? Is it “the market”? Is it the definition: total spending equals total income? Is it real exchange? Real production? Is it total output? Total employment? Total value? Distribution of income? The origin of profit? Price formation? Competition?
In any society, of whatever configuration, production at a given point in time is limited by certain ‘real’ (meaning non-monetary) factors. Notably, a society’s productive activity will always be limited by access to natural resources, the current state of its technology, and the skill, strength, size and imagination of its people. These and similar factors determine the absolute productive potential of a society. At a given point in time, these factors would apply even if, hypothetically, a society happened to be organized in a completely different way to its current form of existence.
If we were to believe most politicians, we’d be under the mistaken impression that government not investing today does future generations a favor. Leaving communications systems underdeveloped, road and transport networks crumbling, education and public health systems deteriorating, our cultural institutions eroding, developments in science and technology stagnating, and so on, will supposedly free future generations of any burden that might otherwise be imposed upon them.
Viewed from a certain vantage point, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a very general framework that offers insight into how we might go about making genuine social progress. It does not simply facilitate an understanding of capitalism, but points to a way of transcending the present system. It enables insight into the opportunities available to any society that forms for itself a government and operates a monetary economy.
When it comes to the means of production, society can be considered as falling into two basic groups – ‘owners’ and ‘non-owners’. Acceptance of a tax-driven currency can be achieved through the exertion of pressure on one or other of these groups, or both. In a low-tech, labor-intensive economy, the state essentially compels non-owners to supply labor services to owners. In a high-tech, capital-intensive economy, there is less need for such compulsion. It will become increasingly viable to place the initiative on owners to supply final output in exchange for the currency as technology continues to advance.
This is surely a time of year when we can take a step back to ponder any crazy thought that might enter our heads. Nothing – in the theoretical realm – should be considered unthinkable. Some may be tempted to disagree, a few paragraphs along, but that could only add to the fun. Hopefully I will not be permanently banished from the internet for expressing such idle curiosities. If this is the price that must be paid, it won’t be pleasant, but so be it.
In the chartalist view, taxes drive acceptance of state money. Through one channel, taxes induce labor services. The need to obtain state money to pay taxes ensures a willingness of some individuals to accept employment in the public sector in exchange for the state money. There is another channel that exists under a broader range of conditions. It is the power of government to induce supply of real output from private enterprise. Not only does government induce a private supply of real output to itself (a transfer of resources from the private to public sector), but it also induces a supply of real output to private consumers. Unlike the inducement of labor services, the inducement of private-sector output would apply equally to a pure labor economy or a purely mechanized economy, as well as to intermediate cases.
A while back, Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute wrote a short piece on complexity economics (h/t Tom Hickey). I find much of the work Arthur and others have done on increasing returns, path dependence and related phenomena very interesting. At the same time, I think the basic outlook of complexity theory can be (though need not be) problematic if its emphasis on micro-level behavior is allowed to obscure the delimiting role of macro-level decisions, institutions and the socioeconomic system itself. The outlook, when this occurs, can become akin to the way economists traditionally (though less so now, at the cutting edge) depicted money as emerging spontaneously out of barter rather than recognizing its likely historical emergence in coercive debt relations and the central role played by the state, particularly through its imposition of tax and other obligations denominated in a state money. Certainly, those debt relations came out of prior micro-level and macro-level interactions, but once they are embodied in a society’s legislative and political framework, they significantly shape the parameters within which further behavior, complex or otherwise, plays out.