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Monopoly-Finance Capital and the Paradox of Accumulation

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review, Professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and author with Fred Magdoff of The Great Financial Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2009). Robert W. McChesney is Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and author of The Political Economy of Media (Monthly Review Press, 2008).

This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ironically, this comes at the very moment that the capitalist system is celebrating having narrowly escaped falling into a similar abyss. The financial crash and the decline in output a year ago, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, was as steep as at the beginning of the Great Depression. “For a while,” Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in August, “key economic indicators—world trade, world industrial production, even stock prices—were falling as fast or faster than they did in 1929-30. But in the 1930s the trend lines kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year.”1 Big government, through the federal bailout and stimulus, as well as the shock-absorber effects of the continued payouts of unemployment and Social Security benefits, Medicare, etc., slowed the descent and helped the economy to level off, albeit at a point well below previous output.

Yet if the Great Recession has leveled off before plunging into the depths of a second Great Depression, it has nonetheless left the U.S. and world economies in shambles. Official U.S. unemployment is over 9 percent, while real unemployment, taking into account all of those wanting jobs plus part-timers desiring full-time work, is close to twice that. Capacity utilization in industry in the United States is at its lowest level since the 1930s. Investment in new plant and equipment has faltered. The financial system is a shadow of what it was only a year ago. The recovery stage of the business cycle is widely expected to be sluggish.

Indeed, what economists most fear at this point is protracted economic stagnation or a long period of slow growth. “Though the economy may stabilize,” Thomas Palley has written for the New America Foundation, “it will likely be unable to escape the pull of stagnation. That is because stagnation is the logical next stage of the existing [economic] paradigm.”2 Judging by the actions of the economic authorities themselves, there seems to be no way out of the present economic malaise that is acceptable to the vested interests, but to restart the financialization process, i.e., the shift in the center of gravity of the economy from production to finance—meaning further financial bubbles. Yet, rather than overcoming the stagnation problem, this renewed financialization will only serve at best to put off the problem, while piling on further contradictions, setting the stage for even bigger shocks in the future.

This paradox of accumulation under today’s monopoly-finance capital was recently captured in a column by Larry Elliott, economics editor of the London-based Guardian. He contrasted the Keynesian approach to the crisis, emphasizing fiscal stimulation and financial regulation, to the more conservative approach favored by British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, which sees the revival of a finance-driven economy as crucial. In Elliott’s view, the support for the restoration of unfettered finance on the part of leading governmental authorities, such as Darling, may reflect the assessment (shared, ironically, with Marxian economics) that financialization is capital’s primary recourse today in countering a basically stagnant economy. As Elliott himself puts it:

Darling’s more cautious approach [in contrast to Keynesian regulatory proposals] is, strangely perhaps, more in tune with the Marxist analysis of the crisis. This argues that it is not the financialisation of Western economies that explains the sluggish growth of recent decades; rather, it is the sluggish growth and the lack of investment opportunities for capital that explains financialisation. From this perspective, the only way capitalists could increase their wealth was through the expansion of a finance sector which, divorced from the real economy, became ever more prone to asset bubbles. Calling time on the casino economy does not mean balanced growth, it just means lower growth.

Those interested in the Marxist perspective should get hold of The Great Financial Crisis, written by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, published by Monthly Review Press in New York. It is a fascinating read. Whether Darling has read it, I don’t know. I suspect, however, that Treasury caution when it comes to reigning in big finance has less to do with Marx and rather more to do with institutional capture.3

There are two key points here: (1) the determination of the economic authorities to reinstall the old regime of essentially unregulated financial markets may be due to a perception that the root problem is one of a stagnant real economy, leaving the casino economy as the only practical means of stimulating growth; (2) this attempt to restart financialization may also reflect “institutional capture,” i.e., the growing power of financial interests within the capitalist state. These are not contradictory, as (1) invariably leads to (2), as in the case of military spending.

The extreme irrationality of such a solution is not lost on the Guardian’s economics editor, who presents the following dismal, but realistic, scenario: “After a short period in which bankers are chastened by their egregious folly there is a return to business as usual. This is the most worrying of all the [various] scenarios [arising from the crash], since it will mean that few—if any—of the underlying problems that caused the crisis have been solved. As a result, we can now start counting down the days to an even bigger financial crisis down the road.”4

All of this underscores the stagnation-financialization trap of contemporary accumulation, from which it is now increasingly clear there is no easy or complete escape within the system. Such an irrational economic condition and its long-term significance cannot be explained by standard economic models, but only in terms of its historic evolution.

Stages of Accumulation

There has long been a fairly widespread agreement among Marxian political economists and economic historians that the history of capitalism up through the twentieth century can be divided into three stages.5 The first of these stages is mercantilism, beginning in the sixteenth century and running into the eighteenth. In terms of the labor process and the development of productive forces, Marx defined this as the period of “manufacture” (meaning the age of handicraft production prior to the rise of what he called “machinofacture”). Nascent factories were typified by the increasingly detailed division of labor described by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations. Accumulation took place primarily in commerce, agriculture, and mining. What Marx called Department I (producing means of production) remained small in both absolute and relative terms in this stage, while Department II (producing commodities for consumption) was limited by its handicraft character.

The second stage is an outgrowth of the industrial revolution in Britain, centered at first in the textile trade and then spreading to industry generally. Viewed from the standpoint of the present, this is often conceived of as competitive capitalism and as the original age of liberalism. Here the focus of accumulation shifted sharply towards modern industry, and particularly the building up of Department I. This included not only factories themselves, but also a whole huge infrastructure of transportation and communications (railroads, telegraphs, ports, canals, steamships). This is a period of intense competition among capitals and a boom-and-bust cycle, with price competition playing a central role in governing economic activity.

The third stage, which is usually called monopoly capitalism or corporate capitalism, began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and was consolidated in the twentieth century. It is marked by the spiraling concentration and centralization of capital, and the rise to dominance of the corporate form of business organization, along with the creation of a market for industrial securities. Industries increasingly come under the rule of a few (oligopolistic) firms that, in Joseph Schumpeter’s terms, operate “corespectively” rather than competitively with respect to price, output, and investment decisions at both the national and increasingly global levels.6 In this stage, Department I continues to expand, including not just factories but a much wider infrastructure in transportation and communications (automobiles, aircraft, telecommunications, computers, etc.). But its continued expansion becomes more dependent on the expansion of Department II, which becomes increasingly developed in this stage—in an attempt to utilize the enormous productive capacity unleashed by the growth of Department I. The economic structure can thus be described as “mature” in the sense that both departments of production are now fully developed and capable of rapid expansion in response to demand. The entire system, however, increasingly operates on a short string, with growing problems of effective demand. Technological innovation has been systematized and made routine, as has scientific management of the labor process and even of consumption through modern marketing. The role of price competition in regulating the system is far reduced.

A further crucial aspect of capitalist development, occurring during all three stages, is the geographical expansion of the system, which, over the course of its first three centuries, developed from a small corner in Western Europe into a world system. However, it was only in the nineteenth century that this globalization tendency went beyond one predominantly confined to coastal regions and islands and penetrated into the interior of continents. And it was only in the twentieth century that we see the emergence of monopoly capital at a high level of globalization—reflecting the growing dominance of multinational (or transnational) corporations.

From the age of colonialism, lasting well into the twentieth century, to the present phase of multinational-corporate domination, this globalizing process has operated imperialistically, in the sense of dividing the world into a complex hierarchy of countries, variously described as: developed and underdeveloped, center and periphery, rich and poor, North and South (with further divisions within both core and periphery). As in any complex hierarchy, there is some shifting over time in those that occupy the top and bottom (and in-between) tiers. Nevertheless, the overall level of social and economic inequality between countries at the world level has risen dramatically over the centuries. There is no real “flattening” of the world economy, as presumed by some ideologues of globalization such as Thomas Friedman.7 Although industrialization has expanded in the periphery, it has generally been along lines determined by global corporations centered in the advanced capitalist countries, and therefore has tended to be directed to the demands of the center (as well as to the wants of the small, internal oligarchies in peripheral countries). Both departments of production in the periphery are thus heavily subject to imperialist influences.

With this thumbnail sketch of capitalism’s historical development before us, it is possible to turn to some of the changes in the nature of accumulation and crisis, focusing in particular on transformations occurring at the core of the system. Capitalism, throughout its history, is characterized by an incessant drive to accumulate, leading to what Mark Blaug referred to as the “paradox of accumulation,” identified with Marx’s critique of capitalist economics. Since profits grow primarily by increasing the rate of exploitation of labor power, i.e., rise by restraining the growth of wages in relation to productivity, this ultimately places limits on the expansion of capital itself. This paradox of accumulation is reflected in what Paul Sweezy called the “tendency to overaccumulation” of capital.8 Those on the receiving end of the economic surplus (surplus value) generated in production are constantly seeking to enlarge their profits and wealth through new investment and further augmentation of their capital (society’s productive capacity). But this inevitably runs up against the relative deprivation of the underlying population, which is the inverse of this growing surplus. Hence, the system is confronted with insufficient effective demand—with barriers to consumption leading eventually to barriers to investment. Growing excess capacity serves to shut off new capital formation, since corporations are not eager to invest in new plant and equipment when substantial portions of their existing capacity are idle. This tendency to overaccumulation becomes increasingly dominant in mature, monopolistic capitalism, slowing the trend-rate of growth around which business cycle fluctuations occur, and thus raising the specter of long-term economic stagnation.

Competitive capitalism in the nineteenth century was dynamic at its core, since the tendency to overaccumulation was held at bay by favorable historical factors. In this period, capital was still being built up virtually from scratch. Department I, in particular, emerged to become a major part of the economy (Department II grew also, of course, but less dramatically). In the maturing capitalism of these years, the demand for new capital formation was essentially unlimited. The investment boom that typically occurred in the business cycle upswing did not generate lasting overaccumulation and overproduction. In these conditions it almost seemed possible, as U.S. economist J. B. Clark declared, to “build more mills that should make more mills for ever.”9 At the same time, the freely competitive nature of the system meant that prices, output, and investment levels were largely determined by market forces independent of individual firms. Many of the rigidities later introduced by giant corporations were therefore absent in the nineteenth-century era of free competition.

Although favorable to system-wide accumulation, the repeated boom and bust crises of competitive capitalism bankrupted firms, from small to large, throughout the economy. Bankruptcies hit firms even at the center of global financial power (Overend, Gurney in 1866; Jay Cooke in 1873; Baring’s in 1890). In contrast, under the mature economy of monopoly capitalism, the dominant U.S. financial firms of 1909 are all still at the center of things a century later: J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, National City Bank—or in one notable case 99 years later—Lehman Brothers. But offsetting this increased stability at the center of wealth and power was the disappearance of many of the circumstances favorable for system-wide accumulation.

Once industry had been built up and existing productive capacity was capable of expanding output rapidly at a moment’s notice (with whatever investment taking place capable of being financed through depreciation funds set aside to replace worn-out plant and equipment), the demand for new net investment for the rapid expansion of Department I was called into question. Hence, in the monopoly stage, capital saturation—the problem of too much capacity, too much production—becomes an ever-present threat. The system tends at all times to generate more surplus than can be easily absorbed by investment (and capitalist consumption). Under these circumstances, as Sweezy put it,

The sustainable growth rate of Department I comes to depend essentially on its being geared to the growth of Department II….If capitalists persist in trying to increase their capital (society’s productive power) more rapidly than is warranted by society’s consuming power…the result will be a build-up of excess capacity. As excess capacity grows, profit rates decline and the accumulation process slows down until a sustainable proportionality between the two Departments is again established. This will occur with the economy operating at substantially less than its full potential. In the absence of new stimuli (war, opening of new territories, significant technological or product innovations), this stagnant condition will persist: there is nothing in the logic of the reproduction process [of capital] to push the economy off dead center and initiate a new period of expansion.10

Such a tendency toward maturity and stagnation does not, of course, mean that the normal ups and downs of the business cycle cease—nor does it point to economic collapse. Rather, it simply suggests that the economy tends towards underemployment equilibrium with recoveries typically aborting short of full employment. The classic case is the Great Depression itself during which a full business cycle occurred in the midst of a long-term stagnation, with unemployment fluctuating over the entire period between 14 and 25 percent. The 1929 Stock Market Crash was followed by a recession until 1933, a recovery from 1933 to 1937, and a further recession in 1937-1938 (with full recovery only beginning in 1939 under the massive stimulus of the Second World War).

If, as Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy declared in Monopoly Capital, “the normal state of the monopoly capitalist economy is stagnation,” this is due, however, not merely to the conditions of mature industrialization depicted above, but also to the changed pattern of accumulation associated with the drive to dominance of the giant firm.11 In orthodox economic theory (both classical and neoclassical), the lynchpin of the so-called “self-regulation” of the economy is price competition, out of which the proverbial “invisible hand” of the system arises. It is this that translates productivity gains into benefits for society as a whole through the cheapening of products. Under monopoly (or oligopoly) capital, however, price competition is effectively banned, with the general price level for industry as a whole (except in the most severe deflationary crises) going only one way—up. Thus, although deflation was normal in nineteenth-century competitive capitalism (the trend of wholesale prices in the United States was downward during most of the century, with the notable exception of the Civil War), inflation was to become the norm in twentieth-century monopoly capitalism (the trend of wholesale prices was upward during most of the century, with the notable exception of the Great Depression).12

In the very early years of monopoly capitalism, it was quickly learned, through some spectacular business failures, that the giant firms faced the threat of mutual self-destruction if they engaged in fierce price competition, while an agreement to maintain or to raise prices, basically in tandem, removed this threat altogether. The resulting change in the nature of competition reflected what Schumpeter, as noted above, called the “corespective” nature of big corporations—only a few of which dominate most mature markets, and price their products through a process of indirect collusion (the most common form of which is the price leadership of the biggest firm). The rationality of such collusion can easily be explained in terms of the game-theory orientation often advanced by received economics. Refusal to collude, i.e., continuation of price competition, threatens destruction for all parties; collusion, in contrast, tends to benefit all parties. In such a clear case of coincident interests, collusion can often be indirect.13

To be sure, price competition is not entirely excluded in advanced capitalism, and may occur in those instances where firms have reason to think that they can get ahead by such means, such as in new industries not yet dominated by a few firms, i.e., before the shakedown process has occurred leading to oligopolistic conditions. This can clearly be seen in recent decades in computers and digital technology. Prices may also fall and a modicum of price competition may be introduced—albeit aimed at driving smaller firms out of business—due to the increased "global sourcing" of commodities produced in low-wage countries. This is evident, in retail, in the case of Wal-Mart, which relies heavily on goods imported from China. As a general rule, however, genuine price competition comes under a strong taboo in the monopoly stage of capitalism.

The implications of the effective banning of price competition at the center of the modern economy are enormous. Competition over productivity or for low-cost position remains intense, but the drastically diminished role of price competition means that the benefits of economic progress tend to be concentrated in the growing surplus of the big firms rather than disseminated more broadly by falling prices throughout the entire society. This aggravates problems of overaccumulation. Faced with a tendency to market saturation, and hence the threat of overproduction, monopolistic corporations attempt to defend their prices and profit margins by further reducing capacity utilization. This, however, prevents the economy from clearing out its excess capital, reinforcing stagnation tendencies. Idle plant and equipment are also held in reserve in the event that rapid expansion is possible. The monopoly capitalist economy thus tends to be characterized by high levels of unplanned and planned excess capacity.14 Major corporations have considerable latitude to govern their output and investment levels, as well as their price levels, which are not externally determined by the market, but rather with an eye to their nearest oligopolistic rivals.

Competition thus does not altogether vanish under monopoly capitalism, but changes in form. Although today’s giant corporations generally avoid genuine price competition (which, when referred to at all in business circles, is now given the negative appellation of price warfare), they nonetheless engage in intense competition for market share through the sales effort—advertising, branding, and a whole panoply of marketing techniques. As Martin Mayer wrote in Madison Avenue in the 1950s: “Advertising has been so successful financially because it is an effective, low-risk competitive weapon. It is the modern manner of accomplishing results which were formerly—at least in theory—secured by price-cutting.”15 Despite being a minor factor in nineteenth-century competitive capitalism, advertising thus becomes central to monopoly capitalism. This also reflects problems of market saturation and the need of corporations to expand their final consumption markets, if they are to continue to grow.16

The stagnation tendency endemic to the mature, monopolistic economy, it is crucial to understand, is not due to technological stagnation, i.e., any failure at technological innovation and productivity expansion. Productivity continues to advance and technological innovations are introduced (if in a more rationalized way) as firms continue to compete for low-cost position. Yet this, in itself, turns into a major problem of the capital-rich societies at the center of the system, since the main constraint on accumulation is not that the economy is not productive enough, but rather that it is too productive. Indeed, in numerous important cases, such as the modern automobile industry, corporations compensate by colluding to promote production platforms and marketing arrangements that maximize inefficiency and waste, while generating big profits. As Henry Ford II once said, “minicars [despite their greater fuel efficiency] make miniprofits.”17

The appearance of a truly epoch-making innovation with geographical as well as economic scale effects—equivalent to the steam engine and the railroad in the nineteenth century, and the automobile in the twentieth—could, of course, alter the general conditions of the economy, constituting the catalyst for a new, long boom, in which capital accumulation feeds on itself for a considerable time. But innovations of this kind are few and far between. Even the computer-digital revolution in the 1980s and 1990s was unable to come close to these earlier epoch-making innovations in stimulating new capital investment.18

Monopoly-Finance Capital and the Crisis

The upshot of the preceding analysis is that accumulation under capitalism has always been dependent on the existence of external stimuli, not simply attributable to the internal logic of accumulation. “Long-run development,” Michal Kalecki declared in his Theory of Economic Dynamics, “is not inherent in the capitalist economy. Thus specific ‘development factors’ are required to sustain a long-run upward movement.”19 Moreover, this problem of the historical factors behind growth becomes more severe under the regime of monopoly capital, which experiences a strong stagnationist pull. The whole question of accumulation and growth is thus turned upside down. Rather than treating the appearance of slow growth or stagnation as an anomaly that needs explaining by reference to external factors outside the normal workings of the system (as in orthodox economics), the challenge is to explain the anomaly of fast or full-employmentgrowth, focusing on those specific historical factors that serve to prop up the system.

This can be illustrated by looking briefly at the history of accumulation and crisis from the 1930s to the present. Economists discovered the Great Depression as a problem quite late—at the tail end of the 1930s. The early years of the Depression, marked by the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the recession that lasted until 1933, were seen as representing a severe downturn, but not an extraordinary change in the working of capitalism. Schumpeter typified the main response by declaring that recovery would simply come “of itself.”20 It was, rather, the slow recovery that commenced in 1933 that was eventually to alter perceptions, particularly after the recession that began in 1937, and which resulted in unemployment leaping from 14 to 19 percent.

John Maynard Keynes’s magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) had pointed to the possibility of the capitalist economy entering a long-term underemployment equilibrium. As he wrote: “It is an outstanding characteristic of the economic system in which we live that…it seems capable of remaining in a chronic condition of sub-normal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse.”21 This analysis, plus the 1937-38 downturn, induced some economists, such as Alvin Hansen, Keynes’s leading early follower in the United States, to raise the question Full Recovery or Stagnation?—the title of Hansen’s 1938 book.22

What followed was an intense but short-lived debate in the United States on the causes of economic stagnation. Hansen raised the issue of maturity, using it to explain the long-term tendency for the capital-rich economy, left to itself, to move “sidewise or even slip down gradually.” In contrast, Schumpeter, Hansen’s main opponent in the debate, attributed stagnation, not so much to the workings of the economy, but rather to the decline of the sociological foundations of entrepreneurial capitalism with the rise of the modern corporation and state. He ended his Business Cycles with the words: “The sociological drift cannot be expected to change.”23 The entire debate, however, came to an abrupt and premature end (it was resurrected briefly after the war but without the same fervor) due to the major stimulus to the economy that ensued with the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe.

As in the case of the Second World War itself, the changed economic conditions in the aftermath of the war were extremely favorable for accumulation. The United States emerged from the war with what Robert Heilbroner described as “the largest reserve of liquid purchasing power [debt-free consumer liquidity] ever accumulated” in its history—if not in the history of capitalism in general. This helped provide the basis, along with heavy government spending on highways, for the second great wave of automobilization in the United States (which included not only the direct effects on industry but also the whole phenomenon of suburbanization). Meanwhile, military spending continued at a much higher level than before the Second World War, with annual U.S. spending on the Korean War rising to about half of peak U.S. spending in the Second World War in both theaters combined.24 These were also years of the rebuilding of the war-devastated economies in Western Europe and Japan. Finally, the rise of the United States to undisputed hegemony in the world economy was accompanied by the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions (GATT, the World Bank, and the IMF), and the expansion of world trade and finance.

The so-called “golden age” of the 1950s and ’60s, however, gradually ran out of steam as the historical forces propelling it waned in influence, turning eventually into what Joan Robinson termed a “leaden age.”25 The consumer liquidity that fed the postwar buying spree dried up. The second-wave automobilization of the country was completed and the automobile industry sank into long-run simple reproduction. Military spending continued to boost the economy with a second regional war in Asia, but with the end of the Vietnam War, this stimulus ebbed. The European and Japanese economies were soon rebuilt, and the new productive capacity that they generated, plus industrial capacity emerging in the periphery, contributed to the growth of international surplus capacity, already becoming evident by the early 1980s.26 The weakening of U.S. hegemony created growing economic rivalries at the global level.

In 1974-75 the U.S. economy and the world economy as a whole entered a full-fledged structural crisis, ending the long boom, and marking the beginning of decades of deepening stagnation. The worsening conditions of accumulation were to be seen in a downward shift in the real growth rate of the U.S. economy, which was lower in the 1970s than in the 1960s; lower in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1970s; and lower in 2000-2007 than in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2007, the economy has declined further, in the deepest crisis since the Great Depression, making 2000-2009 by far the worst decade in economic performance since the 1930s.27

Some analysts, most notably Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy in a number of works, described from the very onset of the mid-1970s crisis the resurfacing of overaccumulation and stagnation tendencies.28 But it was at this time that a new, partial fix for the economy emerged—one that was clearly unanticipated, and yet a logical outcome of the whole history of capitalist development up to that point. This came in the form of the creation of a vast and relatively autonomous financial superstructure on top of the productive base of the capitalist economy.

Financial markets and institutions had, of course, evolved historically along with capitalism. But financial booms were typically short-term episodes coinciding with business cycle peaks, and lacked the independent character that they were to assume in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, as Sweezy insightfully wrote in 1994 in “The Triumph of Financial Capital”:

Traditionally, financial expansion has gone hand-in-hand with prosperity in the real economy. Is it really possible that this is no longer true, that now in the late twentieth century the opposite is more nearly the case: in other words, that now financial expansion feeds not on a healthy economy but a stagnant one? The answer to this question, I think, is yes it is possible, and it is happening. And I will add that I am quite convinced that this inverted relation between the financial and the real is the key to understanding the new trends in the world [economy].29

To understand the historical change that took place in this period, it is crucial to recognize that there are, in essence, two price structures in the modern capitalist economy: one related to the pricing of output and associated with GDP and what economists call “the real economy”; the other related to the pricing of assets, composed primarily in the modern period of “financial assets” or paper claims to wealth.30 Essentially, what occurred was this: unable to find an outlet for its growing surplus in the real economy, capital (via corporations and individual investors) poured its excess surplus/savings into finance, speculating in the increase in asset prices. Financial institutions, meanwhile, on their part, found new, innovative ways to accommodate this vast inflow of money capital and to leverage the financial superstructure of the economy up to ever greater heights with added borrowing—facilitated by all sorts of exotic financial instruments, such as derivatives, options, securitization, etc. Some growth of finance was, of course, required as capital became more mobile globally. This, too, acted as a catalyst, promoting the runaway growth of finance on a world scale.

The result was the creation of mountains of debt coupled with extraordinary growth in financial profits. Total private debt (household and business) rose from 110 percent of U.S. GDP in 1970 to 293 percent of GDP in 2007; while financial profits skyrocketed, expanding by more than 300 percent between 1995 and mid-2007.31

This decades-long process of financialization from the 1970s and 1980s up to the present crisis had the indirect effect of boosting GDP growth through various “wealth effects”—the now well-recognized fact that a certain portion of perceived increases in assets reenters the productive economy in the form of economic demand, particularly consumption. For example, increased consumer spending on housing occurred as well-to-do individuals benefiting from the upward valuation of assets (real estate and stocks) purchased second homes, contributing to a boom in upper-end home construction.32 Yet the consequence was the increasing dependence of the entire economy on one financial bubble after another to keep the game afloat. And, with each extension of the quantity of credit-debt, its quality diminished. This whole process meant growing reliance on the Federal Reserve Board (and the central banks of the other leading capitalist powers) as “lenders of last resort” once a major financial bubble burst.

As financialization took hold, first in the 1970s, and then accelerated in the decades that followed, the U.S. and world economies were subject to growing financial crises (euphemistically referred to as credit crunches). At least fifteen major episodes of financial disruption have occurred since 1970, the most recent of which are: the 1998 Malfunctioning of Long-Term Capital Management; the 2000 New Economy Crash; and the 2007-2009 Great Financial Crisis. Not only have financial crises become endemic, they have also been growing in scale and global impact.33

The symbiotic relation between stagnation and financialization meant that, at each financial outbreak, the Federal Reserve and other central banks were forced to intervene to bail out the fragile financial system, lest the financial superstructure as a whole collapse and the stagnation-prone economy weaken still further. This led to the long-term, piece-by-piece deregulation of the financial system, and the active encouragement by state authorities of financial innovation. This included the growth of “securitization”—the transformation of non-marketable debts into marketable securities, under the illusion that credit risk could be reduced and profits expanded by these means. The entire system became internationalized under the leadership of what Peter Gowan called the “Dollar Wall Street Regime.” Growth of international finance was facilitated by the rapid development and application of communications technologies, promoting increased competition between financial centers—with Wall Street remaining the world financial hub.34

Key to the new financial system in the United States was the emergence of a “financial-industrial complex,” as major industrial corporations were drawn into the new system, shifting from equity to debt financing, and developing their own financial subsidiaries. Concentration in finance grew hand over fist—a process that has only accelerated in the present crisis. As recently as 1990, the ten largest U.S. financial institutions held only 10 percent of total financial assets; today they own 50 percent. The top twenty institutions now hold 70 percent of financial assets—up from 12 percent in 1990. At the end of 1985, there were 18,000 FDIC-member banks in the United States. By the end of 2007, this had fallen to 8,534, and since then has dropped still further. Of the fifteen largest U.S. banks in 1991 (together holding at that time $1.5 trillion dollars in assets), only five remained by the end of 2008 (holding $8.9 trillion dollars in assets). As leading financial analyst Henry Kaufman has stated: “In a single generation, our financial system has been transformed. After operating for centuries as a constellation of specialized services, it has melded together rapidly into a highly concentrated oligopoly of enormous, diversified, integrated firms.” He continued: “When the current crisis abates, the pricing power of these huge financial conglomerates will grow significantly, at the expense of borrowers and investors.”35

The foregoing developments can be seen as marking the transformation of the stage of monopoly capital into the new phase of monopoly-finance capital. Characteristic of this phase of accumulation is the stagnation-financialization trap, whereby financial expansion has become the main “fix” for the system, yet is incapable of overcoming the underlying structural weakness of the economy. Much like drug addiction, new, larger fixes are required at each point merely to keep the system going. Every crisis leads to a brief period of restraint, followed by further excesses. Other external stimuli, such as military spending, continue to play a significant role in lifting the economy, but are now secondary in impact to the ballooning of finance.36

Today’s neoliberal regime itself is best viewed as the political-policy counterpart of monopoly-finance capital. It is aimed at promoting more extreme forms of exploitation—both directly and through the restructuring of insurance and pension systems, which have now become major centers of financial power. Neoliberal accumulation strategies, which function with the aid of a “predator state,” are thus directed first and foremost at enhancing corporate profits in the face of stagnation, while providing further needed cash infusions into the financial sector. Everywhere, the advent of neoliberalism has meant an intensification of the class struggle, emanating from both corporations and the state.37 Far from being a restoration of traditional economic liberalism, neoliberalism is thus a product of big capital, big government, and big finance on an increasingly global scale.38

Neoliberalism has also increased international inequalities, taking advantage of the very debt burden that peripheral economies were encouraged to take on, in order to force stringent restructuring on poorer economies: including removal of restrictions on the movement of capital, privatization, deregulation, elimination of state supports to the poor, deunionization, etc.

In the face of financial sector losses, the Federal Reserve Board and U.S. Treasury have explicitly adopted a “too big to fail” policy, giving the lie to the neoliberal notion of a “self-regulating” market economy. The goal has been to prop up the leading financial institutions and to socialize their losses, while retaining an explicit policy of non-intervention during periods when the financial bubble is expanding—thereby allowing corporations to benefit fully from a bubble while it lasts.

Under monopoly-finance capital, we thus see an intensification of the paradox of accumulation. Superimposed on top of the deepening tendency to overaccumulation in the real or productive economy is the further contradiction of a system that increasingly seeks to promote growth in production as a secondary effect of the promotion of speculative financial assets. It is as if, in Marx’s famous short-hand, one could indefinitely expand wealth and value by means of M[oney]-M′, instead of M-C[ommodity]-M′—skipping altogether the production of commodities in the generation of surplus value, i.e., profit. This is a potent sign, if there ever was one, of the system’s increasing irrationality.

The fact that the root difficulty remains a rising rate of exploitation of workers is indicated by the fact that, in 2006, the real hourly wage rate of private, non-agricultural workers in the United States was the same as in 1967, despite the enormous growth in productivity and wealth in the succeeding decades. In 2000-07, productivity growth in the U.S. economy was 2.2 percent, while median hourly wage growth was -0.1 percent. Wage and salary disbursements as a percentage of GDP declined sharply from approximately 53 percent in 1970 to about 46 percent in 2005. Yet, as if in stark defiance of these trends, consumption at the same time rose as a percent of GDP from around 60 percent in the early 1960s to about 70 percent in 2007.39 Such contradictory developments were made possible by a massive expansion of household debt and the creation in the end of a household bubble, rooted in the securitization of home mortgages. The bursting of the “housing bubble” was the inevitable result of the destruction of the household finances of the great majority of the working population.40

The System’s No-Exit Strategy

In the Great Financial Crisis and the Great Recession that followed hard upon it, the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury, along with the other central banks and treasury departments, have committed tens of trillions of dollars to bailing out financial institutions (by early 2009, over $12 trillion in capital infusions, debt support, and other financial commitments to corporations were provided in the bailout by the U.S. government alone).41 In order to effect this, in the case of the United States, huge quantities of dollars have been printed, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has ballooned, and the federal deficit has soared. Although world capital has sought out dollars in the crisis, inflating the dollar’s value and seemingly strengthening its position as the hegemonic currency, there are fears now that the process will go in reverse as recovery commences, threatening global financial destabilization.42

For some economic analysts and investors, the saving grace of the world economy is the rapid economic growth in China and India. This is often seen as eventually pointing towards a new hegemony, based in China, and a new, long upswing in capitalist growth.43 At present, however, the weight of such emerging capitalist economies is not sufficient to counterbalance the stagnation in the core. And even the most optimistic long-run projections—in which China and India (along with other emerging economies) are able to leap to the next stage of accumulation without further class polarization and destabilization—nonetheless point to insurmountable problems of maturity, stagnation, and financialization (not to mention the overwhelming of planetary resources).

At the core of the system, meanwhile, the forces restraining growth remain considerable. “The current crisis,” Kaufman has written, “has brought an end to a decades-long period of private sector debt growth. The institutions that facilitated rapid debt growth in recent decades are now virtually disabled, their borrowers overloaded.”44

Does this mean that the financialization process, which has been propelling the economy in recent decades, has now come to a standstill, and that a deep, prolonged stagnation is therefore to be expected in the months and years ahead? We believe, as indicated above, that this is the most likely result of the current crisis.

Nevertheless, there are, as we have seen, strong forces pushing for the reinstitution of financialization via the state, with the idea of getting the whole speculative momentum going again. In some cases, this is under the deceptive guise of very modest moves to financial regulation in order to promote confidence and to “legitimize” the system. Indeed, all the indications at present are that financial capital is being put back in the saddle. And with some of the earlier forms of securitization now no longer able to attract investors, the large financial conglomerates are peddling what Business Week calls “a new generation of dicey products.” For example:

In recent months such big banks as Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase have rolled out new-fangled corporate credit lines tied to complicated and volatile derivatives….Some of Wall Street’s latest innovations give reason to pause….Lenders typically tie corporate credit lines to short-term interest rates. But now Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and BofA, among others, are linking credit lines both to short-term rates and credit default swaps (CDSs), the volatile and complicated derivatives that are supposed to operate as “insurance” by paying off the owners if a company defaults on its debt….In these new arrangements, when the price of the CDS rises—generally a sign the market thinks the company’s health is deteriorating—the cost of the loan increases, too. The result: the weaker the company, the higher the interest rates it must pay, which hurts the company further….Managers now must deal with two layers of volatility—both short-term rates and credit default swaps, whose prices can spike for reasons outside their control.

Business Week goes on to inform its affluent readers of other new speculative instruments that are being introduced, such as “structured notes” or a form of derivative aimed at small investors, offering “teaser rates”—virtually guaranteeing high returns for small investors for a few years, followed by “huge potential losses” after that.45

Whether a major new financial bubble will be generated by such means under current circumstances is at this point impossible to determine. There is no denying, however, that restoring the conditions for finance-led expansion has now become the immediate object of economic policy in the face of a persistently stagnation-prone real economy. The social irrationality of such a response only highlights the paradox of accumulation—from which there is today no exit for capital. The main barrier to the accumulation of capital remains the accumulation of capital itself!

August 27, 2009

Notes:

  1. Paul Krugman, “Averting the Worst,” New York Times, August 10, 2009.
  2. Thomas I. Palley, America’s Exhausted Paradigm (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation, 2009), 32, www.newamerica.net.
  3. Larry Elliott, “Comic-Book Economics and the Markets,” The Guardian, July 6, 2009. See also John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
  4. Elliott, “Comic-Book Economics.”
  5. The next few pages draw heavily on Paul M. Sweezy, Four Lectures on Marxism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981), 36-38.
  6. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), 90.
  7. Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. For an opposing view, see John Bellamy Foster, “The Imperialist World System,” Monthly Review 59, no. 1 (May 2007), 1-16.
  8. Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 245; Sweezy, Four Lectures, 34-36. See also Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981), 352-53.
  9. J. B. Clark, “Introduction,” in Karl Rodbertus, Overproduction and Crisis (New York: Scribner, 1898) 15. Clark himself suggested in the same passage that, while this posed no absolute contradiction, it was nevertheless “an unreal case.”
  10. Sweezy, Four Lectures, 39.
  11. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 108.
  12. Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, The End of Prosperity (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 15-20.
  13. The classic “kinked-demand curve” treatment of oligopolistic pricing is to be found in Paul M. Sweezy, “Demand Under Conditions of Oligopoly,” Journal of Political Economy 47 (1939), 568-73.
  14. Josef Steindl, Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 9-14.
  15. Martin Mayer, Madison Avenue (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), xiii.
  16. On the role of advertising see Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Inger L. Stole, “The Sales Effort and Monopoly Capital,” Monthly Review, 60, no. 11 (April 2009), 1-23.
  17. Henry Ford II quoted in Barry Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet (New York: Free Press, 1992), 80-81.
  18. See John Bellamy Foster, Harry Magdoff, and Robert W. McChesney, “The New Economy: Myth and Reality,” Monthly Review 52, no. 11 (April 2001), 1-15.
  19. Michal Kalecki, Theory of Economic Dynamics (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1954), 161.
  20. Joseph A. Schumpeter, “Depressions,” in Douglas V. Brown, et al., The Economics of the Recovery Program (New York: McGraw Hill, 1934), 3-21.
  21. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1973), 249.
  22. Alvin H. Hansen, Full Recovery or Stagnation? (New York: W.W. Norton, 1938).
  23. Alvin H. Hansen, “The Stagnation Thesis,” in American Economic Association, Readings in Fiscal Policy (Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin, 1955), 549; Joseph A. Schumpeter, Business Cycles, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1939), 1032-1050.
  24. Robert Heilbroner, The Future as History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960), 134.
  25. Joan Robinson, Essays in the Theory of Economic Fluctuations (London: Macmillan, 1962), 54.
  26. Susan Strange and Roger Tooze, eds., The International Politics of Surplus Capacity (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981).
  27. Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.1.
  28. See Magdoff and Sweezy’s The Dynamics of U.S. Capitalism (1972), The End of Prosperity (1977), The Deepening Crisis of U.S. Capitalism (1981), Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (1987), and The Irreversible Crisis (1988)—all published by Monthly Review Press.
  29. Paul M. Sweezy, “The Triumph of Financial Capital,” Monthly Review 46, no. 2 (June 1994), 8.
  30. Hyman Minsky, Can “It” Happen Again? (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1982), 94-95.
  31. Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, 121; Henry Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2009), 161.
  32. Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 174; Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco, FRBSF Economic Letter, January 19, 2007.
  33. Fourteen of the fifteen major financial crises since the 1970s are listed in Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 134. An additional one was the financial crash in Japan in 1990 that led to a decade or more of stagnation.
  34. Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 57; Peter Gowan, “U.S. Hegemony Today,” in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Pox Americana (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 57-76.
  35. Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 67, 97-103, 229.
  36. On the role of military spending see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60, no. 5 (October 2008), 1-19.
  37. On the repressive aspects of the neoliberal state see James K. Galbraith, The Predator State (New York: The Free Press, 2008), and Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna, “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” Monthly Review 61, no. 2 (June 2009), 1-17. On the class struggle, see Michael D. Yates, Why Unions Matter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
  38. In his last book, John Kenneth Galbraith declared that the “renaming of the system” as “the market system” in neoliberal ideology was little more than a circumvention of reality, a “not wholly innocent fraud.” Related to this, in his view, was the abandonment within the mainstream (and even among much of the left) of the concept of “monopoly capitalism.” John Kenneth Galbraith, The Economics of Innocent Fraud (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 3-9; 12.
  39. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 2008/2009 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), Table 3.1; Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, 129-31.
  40. See “The Household Debt Bubble,” in Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, 27-38.
  41. “Financial Rescue Nears GDP as Pledges Top 12.8 Trillion,” Bloomberg.com, March 31, 2009; Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 213.
  42. “Dollar, Yen Decline as Recovering Economy Eases Refuge Appeal,” Bloomberg.com, April 22, 2009.
  43. See, for example, “An Astonishing Rebound,” The Economist, August 13, 2009. On China as the next hegemon see Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (London: Verso, 2007). For a less sanguine view taking into account China’s (and emerging Asia’s) relation to “transnational accumulation” see Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett, “China and the Dynamics of Transnational Accumulation,” Historical Materialism 14, no. 3 (2006), 3-43.
  44. Kaufman, The Road to Financial Reformation, 223.
  45. “Old Banks, New Tricks,” Business Week, August 17, 2009, 20-23.