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Monthly Review Volume 68, Number 3 (July-August 2016)

July 2016 (Volume 68, Number 3)

Notes from the Editors

Commenting in the January 1973 issue of Monthly Review on the declining condition of the U.S. economy, Paul Sweezy brought back the question of “secular stagnation,” first advanced by Keynes’s leading follower Alvin Hansen in the late 1930s. “The U.S. economy,” Sweezy wrote, in an article entitled “Notes on the U.S. Situation at the End of 1972,” “is experiencing at one and the same time a cyclical boom and secular stagnation.” The resurfacing of stagnation, he suggested, was the product in part of the U.S. attempt to unwind from the Vietnam War, which had previously been lifting the economy.… A couple of months after the publication of Sweezy’s article, in March 1973, the New York Times, seeking to quiet the widening anti-capitalist protests, ran a series of articles on its op-ed page under the general heading of “Capitalism, for Better or Worse.” The series concentrated on the two phenomena of the weakening of economic prosperity and the decline of military spending resulting from the drawing down of the Vietnam War. One of these articles, misleadingly entitled “Taking Stock of War,” appearing on March 14, was written by Paul Samuelson, then considered to be the leading neoclassical economist in the United States. … | more…

Monopoly Capital at the Half-Century Mark

A half-century after its publication, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital remains the single most influential work in Marxian political economy to emerge in the United States.… In recent years, interest in Baran and Sweezy’s magnum opus has revived, primarily for two reasons: (1) the global resurgence of debates over the constellation of issues that their work addressed—including economic stagnation, monopoly, inequality, militarism and imperialism, multinational corporations, economic waste, surplus capital absorption, financial speculation, and plutocracy; and (2) the new, fundamental insights into the book’s origins resulting from the publication of its two missing chapters and the public release of Baran and Sweezy’s correspondence.… I shall divide this introduction on the influence and development of the argument of Monopoly Capital over the last fifty years into three parts: (1) a brief treatment of the book itself and its historical context; (2) a discussion of responses to Monopoly Capital, and of the development of the tradition that it represented, during its first four decades, up to the Great Financial Crisis that began in 2007; and (3) an assessment of the continuing significance of monopoly capital theory in the context of the historical period stretching from the Great Financial Crisis to the present.… | more…

Monopoly Capital Then and Now

Monopoly Capital had an outstanding impact on students of my generation. It was published just as the Vietnam War was heating up, when students and youth throughout the world were beginning to “contest the structures”—to use a favorite expression of that time—and were eagerly looking for analyses of these “structures.” Monopoly Capital, written jointly by two renowned Marxist economists, each of whom had already authored a classic, provided just that. It was avidly read in progressive circles around the world.… For students of economics like myself, there was an additional reason for its impact. Economic literature from both the Communist world and from Communist writers in the West tended to underplay the problem of aggregate demand. While Marx had been a trenchant critic of Say’s Law and had highlighted the demand problem, it was by this time seen at most as a problem underlying periodic crises, but not one that could affect capitalism in a secular sense, ex ante.… | more…

Kalecki and Steindl in the Transition to Monopoly Capital

Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital is a classic that has long outlived the conjuncture in American capitalism that it described. In a deep and scholarly way, its authors exposed the deep structure of that capitalism, which determined the dynamics of the system and therefore those “surface” phenomena of unemployment and poverty—symptoms not of any functional malaise in capitalism (the “market failures” beloved by academic economists), but of the very way in which modern capitalism works. The authors of the book may therefore be forgiven for providing only the lightest sketch of the ideas and theories they used in their analysis. In this essay, I try to uncover some of those ideas and theories to show how they represent a shift from the analysis in Sweezy’s earlier work the Theory of Capitalist Development, and how the two books are linked to the ideas of Karl Marx in a way that can only be understood through the work of Michał Kalecki and Josef Steindl. Baran and Sweezy knew and admired Kalecki and Steindl and, as I will try to show, continued what might be called Marx’s “project” very much in their spirit.… | more…

The Profits of Financialization

The financialization of capitalism has been marked by the sustained rise of financial profits. In the United States, financial profits as a proportion of total profits rose enormously from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, collapsed during 2007–09, and subsequently recovered, but without reaching previous heights. During this period, the trend of the average rate of profit has been largely flat. The relative rise of financial profits in spite of stagnant average profitability represents a theoretical and empirical conundrum. We will argue that the answer should be sought partly in financial expropriation, but also in public interest rates kept at extraordinarily low levels. In this light, the rise of financial profits represents a vast public subsidy to the financial system characteristic of financialization.… | more…

New this week!

Surplus Absorption and Waste in Neoliberal Monopoly Capitalism

The central problem in advanced monopoly capitalism is not one of scarce resources clashing against innate, insatiable wants. Rather, it is one of an abundance of production clashing against saturated consumption and investment markets. In order to absorb potential economic output and forestall excess capacity, business interests must continuously search for new markets to exploit or entice existing customers who stand ready to buy the latest product, iteration, or service, and to induce new investment. The key to business survival in a capitalist economy is continual expansion of market share and reach: grow or die.… The efforts applied to this relentless drive undermine the conventional wisdom of market-determined pricing—for were a competitive price system in place, the funds for these expenditures would not exist. As I will show, the resources and funds expended in this quixotic endeavor to grow can be broadly referred to as the “economic surplus.”… | more…

Hydrocarbons and the Illusion of Sustainability

This article will be made available online on August 1st.

After fifty years, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital has stood the test of time. Not only did it provide a lucid description of midcentury American society, but Monopoly Capital established a framework for analyzing events to come.… By bringing Marxian theory into their historical moment, they fomented many debates and encouraged the development of various perspectives, a legacy that has expanded to include analyses of the labor process, imperialism, finance, globalization, and the environment.… They elucidated a fundamental contradiction of the time. Capitalism is a system of self-expanding value that must continually accumulate, yet is confined by a social and institutional order that precludes rapid accumulation. This framework is especially useful for analyzing the fundamental problems of the twenty-first century. Among those crucial problems is the demise of the hydrocarbon economy.… | more…

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Monopoly Capital in the Classroom

This article will be made available online on August 8th.

In 1964, I began my graduate studies at Cambridge University. The reading list included a book by Josef Steindl with the intriguing title Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism. I read it, and was immediately drawn to the last chapter, “Karl Marx and the Accumulation of Capital.” Aside from reading the first few chapters of Capital in a study group, I had not yet read any of Marx’s economic writings (predictably, none had been assigned in any of my college courses). However, that last chapter persuaded me that Steindl’s analysis aligned with what I understood to be Marx’s general vision about the “laws of motion” of capitalist economies.… This set the stage for my reading of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in the spring of 1966. I devoured that book. I doubt that I got up from the kitchen table until I had read it from cover to cover.… | more…

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UK Monopoly Capitalism

Applying a North American Brand to Britain

This article will be made available online on August 15th.

During the past decade, persistent excess productive capacity, at levels exceeding at times 25 percent, has blighted the British economy, along with rates of unemployment not experienced for two decades, with the result that a substantial proportion of the economy’s productive resources remain underutilized. Orthodox economic theory often ascribes such phenomena to a lack of capital for investment. However, in the same period, interest rates have been historically low, and the UK corporate sector has accumulated increasing reserves of surplus capital. Clearly, there has been no shortage of capital for investment. The failure to invest stems not from the supply of capital, but instead from the paucity of investment opportunities, suggesting that British capitalism is mired in stagnation.… | more…

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Multinational Corporations and the Globalization of Monopoly Capital

From the 1960s to the Present

This article will be made available online on August 22nd.

In 1964, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy wrote an essay entitled “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” for a festschrift in honor of the sixty-fifth birthday of the great Polish Marxist economist Michał Kalecki.… [T]he essay offered the first major analysis of multinational corporations within Marxian theory. Parts of it were incorporated into Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in 1966, two years after Baran’s death. Yet for all that book’s depth, “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” provided a more complete view of their argument on the growth of multinationals. In October and November 1969, Harry Magdoff and Sweezy wrote their article “Notes on the Multinational Corporation,” picking up where Baran and Sweezy had left off. That same year, Magdoff published his landmark The Age of Imperialism, which systematically extended the analysis of the U.S. economy into the international domain.… In the analyses of Baran, Sweezy, and Magdoff, as distinct from the dominant liberal perspective, the multinational corporation was the product of the very same process of concentration and centralization of capital that had created monopoly capital itself.… | more…

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Reading Capital, Reading Historical Capitalisms

This article will be made available online on August 29th.

Marx’s Capital presents a rigorous scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production and capitalist society, and how they differ from earlier forms. Volume 1 delves into the heart of the problem. It directly clarifies the meaning of the generalization of commodity exchanges between private property owners (and this characteristic is unique to the modern world of capitalism, even if commodity exchanges had existed earlier), specifically the emergence and dominance of value and abstract social labor.… Volume 2 demonstrates why and how capital accumulation functions, more specifically, why and how accumulation successfully integrates the exploitation of labor in its reproduction and overcomes the effects of the social contradiction that it represents.… Volume 3 of Capital is different. Here Marx moves from the analysis of capitalism in its fundamental aspects (its “ideal average”) to that of the historical reality of capitalism.… To move from the reading of Capital (and particularly of volumes 1 and 2) to that of historical capitalisms at successive moments of their deployment has its own requirements, even beyond reading all of Marx and Engels.… | more…

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