In its most recent issue (July 17th) Doug Henwood’s excellent Left Business Observer, now in its seventh year of publication, highlights what may come to be seen as an important turning point in current economic history. The gist of it is that Alan Greenspan and his supporters at the Federal Reserve have come to the conclusion that inflation is no longer a serious problem and the real threat today is deflation. “For all the bad press that inflation gets, deflation is generally far worse for all but the richest and best-positioned.…Greenspan and Co. might not fear an exact replay of the 1929-32 collapse, but clearly that’s the ‘it’ that central bankers don’t want ever to happen again” (to paraphrase the title of Hyman Minsky’s classic book Can ‘It’ Happen Again?).
Much has been written about “globalization” in the last few years. It is not my intention to add to this literature but only to put the topic into the context of my own understanding of the history of capitalism.…Globalization is not a condition or a phenomenon: it is a process that has been going on for a long time, in fact ever since capitalism came into the world as a viable form of society four or five centuries ago; (dating the birth of capitalism is an interesting problem but not relevant for present purposes). What is relevant and important, is to understand that capitalism is in its innermost essence an expanding system both internally and externally. Once rooted, it both grows and spreads. The classic analysis of this double movement is of course Marx’s Capital.
The conscious crafting of an honest history by a state commission is a rare enough event to justify our calling your attention to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But this writing of history is incomplete, in the same degree as the process of change in South Africa. Certain brute facts are ignored and avoided, and this avoidance was the condition of the bargain accepted by the ANC. As per South Africa’s Freedom Charter, now it can in some meaningful sense be said that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” But what belongs to whom is the question left unaddressed as the very condition of the transition negotiations, transferring its tension into all aspects of that transition, not least any permitted debate over present remedies for a history of injustice.
As of early summer the economic outlook for the rest of 1997, as portrayed in the major media, could hardly be brighter. “Strong growth with little unemployment and low inflation doesn’t have to peter out….Could it possibly get any better than this?” exults Business Week (January).…Up to a point this is clearly a case of déjà vu all over again. A “new era” was widely and enthusiastically proclaimed by professors, pundits, and plain people as the stock market boom of the 1920s neared its peak. A few months later the market collapsed, and the greatest depression in U.S. history began. The big question now is whether the rest of the scenario of the 1920s and the 1930s is likely to repeat itself. The answer of the media and Wall Street and probably of plenty of plain people too is a resounding NO.
After a long period of sustained attack by governments of various stripes, a steady deterioration of working and living standards, and declines in membership and militancy, there are encouraging signs that organized labor is moving again. This may come as a surprise to many, not least on the left, who have long since written off the labor movement as an oppositional force; and it may begin to challenge some of the most widespread assumptions about the nature and direction of contemporary capitalism, assumptions often shared by activists and intellectuals on the left as well as the right.…Although it is, of course, too early to make big claims about this trend, it does seem to be a good moment to take a close look not only at these new signs of activism but also at the nature of labor today and at the environment in which the labor movement now has to navigate.
It is encouraging to find that in the face of constantly changing trends within academia, there was such a strong turnout for the 1997 Socialist Scholars Conference—on a rainy Easter weekend (March 28-30) over 1,700 people came out in full force. There was a feeling of excitement in the halls and class rooms of the Borough of Manhattan Community College that may just signify both a return to Marxist politics and a revitalization of the U.S. labor movement. The opening plenary speeches were full of hope and enthusiasm: from Daniel Singer who pointed out that “the ideological swing to the right has probably come to an end…cracks are beginning to appear in the ruling ideology and popular resistance is growing” to Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, who emphasized the importance of class politics that challenges, rather than accepts the Democratic party.
Let me start with a provocative claim, which is contrary to all the conventional wisdom. The claim I want to make is that this historical moment, the one we’re living in now, is the best not the worst, the most not the least appropriate moment to bring back Marx. I’ll even claim that this is the moment when Marx should and can come fully into his own for the first time—not excluding the historical moment when he actually lived.
There is a great deal of difference however between the strong version of the globalization thesis which requires a new view of the international economy as one that “subsumes and subordinates national-level processes,” and a more nuanced view which gives a major role to national-level policies and actors, and the central position not to inexorable economic forces but to politics. In the second perspective, current changes are considered in a longer historical perspective and are seen as distinct but not unprecedented, and as not necessarily involving either the emergence of, or movement toward, a type of economic system which is basically different from what we have known.…It is important to see that the first version of the globalization thesis is based on a myth, has profound political implications which are defeatist, and is not based on a sound analysis of what is a more complex and contestable set of processes.
In this space in last summer’s double issue of MR, we directed attention to the work of a worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., especially its annual State of the World, the first issue of which was published in 1984. The latest (1997) of these reports came out in February. By now this series is being translated into all the world’s major languages and constitutes what is probably the most comprehensive and available source of information on the global environment.
In the late l930’s I sat in on a course of education for trade unionists. That these workers had a desire to learn was evident by their enrollment in a class held in the evenings, after they had done a day’s work. That the teacher knew his subject was manifest from the brilliance of his lecture. That the combination of students’ desire and teacher’s grasp of the material did not result in learning was obvious from the fact that before the hour was over, several members of the class were asleep; it was apparent, too, from the decline in enrollment—the next class was attended by only half the students, and the third time the class met, less than a quarter who had signed up were in attendance.