Mailvox: Marxism and the Shoe Event Horizon

DB asks about a past SmartPop essay:

I am an Italian university student, and at the moment I am writing my thesis, which is about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While gathering some material to work on, I found The Rough Guide to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Marcus O’Dair, in which he maintains that you stated that “the Shoe Event Horizon [is] a dig not at capitalism, but rather at the Marxist notion of capitalist crisis, which is pretty much its antithesis” (page 71).

I have been trying to find the original source of this idea, but I am not sure whether it is this one:

With this letter, I would ask you if you could briefly explain how the “Shoe Event Horizon theory” is to be considered a critique to Marxism rather than to capitalism itself (I am not an expert in the fields of philosophy and economics).

My essay in THE ANTHOLOGY AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE was indeed the original source of the idea,  which I mentioned in a one-off line without explaining it. Neglecting to explain things is a time-honored personal tradition. I’m not usually doing it to be difficult, it’s just that I tend to have a very hard time grasping what is, and is not, obvious to other people.

Adams manages to mine this unlikely field, economics, for some of his most scathing barbs. The dismal science does not often figure into fictional plot lines and still less is it played for laughs, but nevertheless, it has an integral role in both the overall story and Adams’ underlying theme. Indeed, Adams betrays a remarkably sophisticated understanding of economics when he pokes fun at the Marxian concept of capitalist crisis in the Shoe Event Horizon that ruins the world of Frogstar World B.

Before I can explain why the Shoe Event Horizon is poking fun at the idea of a crisis in capitalism, I should probably cite the relevant event as recounted by Pizpot Gargravarr.

From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet—people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the numbers of these shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result—collapse, ruin and famine. Most of the population died out. Those few who had the right kind of genetic instability mutated into birds—you’ve seen one of them—who cursed their feet, cursed the ground and vowed that none should walk on it again.

There is no singular coherent theory of capitalist crisis, there are, in fact, several, but they are summarized more or less accurately on Wikipedia.

In Marxist terms, the economic crises are crises of overproduction and immiseration of the workers who, were it not for the capitalist control of the society, would be the determiners of both demand and production in the first place.

These systemic factors include:

  • Full employment profit squeeze. Capital accumulation can pull up the demand for labor power, raising wages. If wages rise “too high,” it hurts the rate of profit, causing a recession.
  • The tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The accumulation of capital, the general advancement of techniques and scale of production, and the inexorable trend to oligopoly by the victors of capitalist market competition, all involve a general tendency for the degree of capital intensity, i.e., the “organic composition of capital” of production to rise. All else constant, this is claimed to lead to a fall in the rate of profit, which would slow down accumulation.
  • Overproduction. If the capitalists win the class struggle to push wages down and labor effort up, raising the rate of surplus value, then a capitalist economy faces regular problems of excess producer supply and thus inadequate aggregate demand.

All such factors resolve to the synthetic viewpoint that all such crises are crises of over and/or misappropriated production relative to the ability and/or willingness of the workers who generate the bulk of demand to consume.

As he later does with the concept of Keynesian monetary policy still being pushed by the likes of Krugman and Abe today, Adams takes the concept of capitalist crisis stemming from overproduction to absurd and hilarious extremes. In the tragic case of the world of Frogstar B, the people actually reduced their aggregate demand by evolving into flying beings in order to escape the terrible results of the crisis caused by the overproduction of shoes.

The connection between the Shoe Event Horizon and capitalist crisis struck me as so obvious as to need no explanation, but then, it belatedly occurs to me that perhaps not everyone recognizes the implicit connection between capitalist crisis, overproduction, and inadequate aggregate demand, which in the case of Frogstar B, eventually plummeted all the way to zero.