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1998

A Report from Minsk

In Minsk, in the summer of 1992, I spoke to a militia officer (our term for the local police) who worked at the department responsible for the fight against organized crime. As a writer I was particularly interested in the activities (and thought patterns and language) of the newly emerging private business. The officers of the department were well informed, and they were in a despondent and confused mood. “I returned recently from the U.S.A., where I spent some time working in an American police department,” the chief of the unit told me.” An American policeman explained to me what we here in Belarus should be doing. ‘You want to build capitalism,’ said he, ‘good.’ ‘But where will your people get money to start a business, or to buy factories from the state? From what you tell me, they cannot obtain money legally. So you, the cops, should close your eyes to crimes that only involve money. Your job now is to see that people don’t kill each other in the streets—nothing more. When the ones who have stolen enough money take power they will adopt their own laws. And then you can do your best to achieve law and order in the country.’”

July-August 1998 (Volume 50, Number 3)

Notes from the Editors

We write in early June, and these will be the last “Notes from the Editors” until some time in September when things will surely be a lot different from what they are now. Meanwhile you should not spend too much time trying to figure out what the difference will be. We are clearly in the last stages of one of capitalism’s periodic “business cycles,” and these are always periods of severe contradictions and much confusion. Later on, when things have calmed down a bit and the course of events seems to be following a more coherent pattern, there will be time enough to analyze the various tendencies and counter-tendencies that are combining to shape this phase of the twentieth century’s final cycle

Introduction to Hungry for Profit

The conventional view that agriculture was displaced by industry in two stages—by the industrial revolution in the late nineteenth century, and as a result of the rise of the agribusiness system in the mid-twentieth century—has left many observers of the contemporary political economy with the impression that to deal with agriculture is essentially to focus on political-economic history rather than contemporary political economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of this special issue of MR is to help compensate for the neglect that agriculture has often suffered in political-economic literature of the late twentieth century. In so doing we will continue with a line of argument that was introduced in MR more than a decade ago in the July-August 1986 special issue Science, Technology, and Capitalism, edited by Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, which included landmark essays on U.S. agriculture and agricultural research by Richard Lewontin and Jean-Pierre Berlan

The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

One of the most well established conventions of Western culture is the association of capitalism with cities. Capitalism is supposed to have been born and bred in the city. But more than that, the implication is that any city—with its characteristic practices of trade and commerce—is by its very nature potentially capitalist from the start, and only extraneous obstacles have stood in the way of any urban civilization giving rise to capitalism. Only the wrong religion, the wrong kind of state, or any kind of ideological, political, or cultural fetters tying the hands of urban classes have prevented capitalism from springing up anywhere and everywhere, since time immemorial—or at least since technology has permitted the production of adequate surpluses

June 1998 (Volume 50, Number 2)

Notes from the Editors

What’s the matter with Japan? According to today’s conventional wisdom—i.e., what we are told by the media and the syndicated pundits—almost everything. Its economy, the second largest in the world, is in a long-term crisis that affects on everyone else, most severely the United States, and it stubbornly refuses to do anything about it despite the friendly advice and frustrated pleas of its partners in the developed capitalist world.

What do they want Japan to do? Simple: they want Japan to “be like us.” Open its markets, deregulate its financial and trading systems, and then step on the economic accelerator—reduce taxes, especially on the higher incomes, and open wide the government-spending spigot. The consequence would presumably be that Japan would quickly become a bigger and better market for its stricken neighbors in Asia and its rich trading partners on the other side of the Pacific Rim.

This is of course the orthodox neoliberal cure for Japan’s crisis. Why does the Japanese government hold back, drag its feet, refuse to accept its “responsibilities” to the newly globalized capitalist economy? Until quite recently the answer to this question was to blame the ossified bureaucratic structure of the Tokyo government. The top bureaucrats, particularly in the Ministry of Finance, were seen as living in the past and being incapable of understanding the needs of the new situation. But this is not a very convincing story. The bureaucrats have been around for quite a while now, and during the great post-Second World War upsurge that catapulted Japan to the top level of the world economy, they gave a pretty good account of themselves. Why should we now believe that they have suddenly become a bunch of doddering incompetents?

In this situation, we have New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof to thank for a very different and much more satisfactory explanation of Japan’s recent performance, one that no one, at least in this country, seems to have had any intimation of. Kristof’s contribution is contained in a long dispatch under the headline “Shops Closing, Japan Still Asks ‘What Crisis?’” that takes up part of three columns on page one and almost all of an inside page (April 21, 1998).

Kristof’s thesis, reduced to its essentials, is that the Japanese as a whole are not feeling any crisis, that they are reasonably satisfied with things as they are, and that they have no interest in pumping up their economy to meet the demands of the Americans. In sum, “the lack of a crisis mentality means that Japan cannot summon the political will to lay off surplus workers, to extinguish insolvent banks, to snuff out the hopes of the kindly old ladies who run rice shops and futon stores. It means that there is little public pressure on prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to push for the sweeping deregulation and huge stimulus that the United States is urging.” As a further indication of Japanese opinion, Kristof cites Hironori Tatayama, a banker in a small town 200 miles southwest of Tokyo: “For people like Mr. Tatayama, the problem of economic restructuring is the price in fairness, equity, and civility. To foreigners, Japan often seems virtually socialist in mind set, profoundly believing in social equity and relying on the most progressive income tax system of any major country in the world—including a marginal rate of 65 percent on personal income taxes—to achieve the equality. After the Soviet Union collapsed, I [Mr. Tatayama] thought that socialism had failed and that capitalism was better…but when I visited Singapore one time, I saw skyscrapers and what looked like a slum next to them. I was surprised, and maybe that was because Japan is the only place where that kind of thing doesn’t happen, the only place where everyone thinks of themselves as middle class.&rdquo

As he approaches the end of his long dispatch from Japan, Kristof sounds a note that must be reassuringly welcome to his bosses at the Times in New York. Citing Yasuo Murata who runs a sawmill and has been hard hit by the opening of Japan’s economy: “Unless the Government changes its policy,” he said,

it’ll be impossible for me to survive here. The problem is the imports…. I want the Government to stop the imports of logs, but I know it can’t do that. Japan is selling high-tech products to other countries, and I understand that if the Government stops the log imports, then the other countries won’t buy Japanese cars or high-tech goods. I understand that the weak are eliminated. I’m really against deregulation, but ultimately I have to accept it. There is no other way.

According to Kristof there are a lot of people who think like Mr. Murata, and so far they have managed to resist caving in altogether. Perhaps this is because Japan is a much more egalitarian country than it is usually given credit for and the popular resistance to neoliberalism may be greater than those who rule Japan would like. If so, that is a piece of good news, coming at a time when good news is in sadly short supply.

[mr-bequest]

The Reconstruction of Bourgeois Order in Northern Ireland

In April, the Northern Ireland process finally resulted in an agreement reached under the chairmanship of U.S. Senator John Mitchell. The so-called Good Friday Agreement, which is to be put to a referendum on May 22, proposed the establishment of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly (with the prospect of Sinn Fein actually joining a Northern Ireland executive), a cross-border Council of Ireland to reassure the Nationalist community that their interests are protected, and a British Council to similarly reassure the Unionists. A major concession to the Unionists is the proposal that the Irish Republic drop its constitutional claim to the North. There is also an understanding that the prisoners from those paramilitary organizations accepting the agreement will be released within two years of its implementation.

Science in a Skeptical Age

John Gillot and Manjit Kumar, Science and the Retreat from Reason (Monthly Review Press, 1997), 288 pp., $18.

We live in a skeptical age. All of the basic concepts of the Enlightenment, including progress, science and reason are now under attack. At the center of this skepticism lie persistent doubts about science itself, emanating both from within and from without the scientific community. Recent titles by scientists give an idea of the extent of the crisis in confidence within science: Science: The End of the Frontier? (1991) by Nobel prize winner Leon Lederman; The End of Certainty (1996) by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine; and The End of Science (1996) by Scientific American writer John Horgan.

May 1998 (Volume 50, Number 1)

Notes from the Editors

The fifteenth annual Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) was held this year on the weekend of March 22–23, several weeks earlier than usual, but at the accustomed venue, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, way down on the west side, a couple of blocks from the Chambers Street subway station. The weather on the first day, March 22, after a mild and benign winter—supposedly the gift of EI Niño, the fickle Christ Child who evened things up by punishing Florida and California—was abominable, a mixture of sleet, freezing rain, and snow that left many of the approaches to the city clogged with traffic jams and minor accidents but fortunately spared the city streets.

Under these circumstances it was truly remarkable that attendance at the Conference, estimated at 1,600 by the organizers, was higher than last year. It must be emphasized that the following comments make no claim to comprehensiveness, which in any case would be impossible to achieve. From 10 o’clock a.m. on Saturday morning to early evening on Sunday there were at all times multiple panels in operation—in big theaters, lecture halls, and classrooms, put together by a long list of sponsors. No one could attend more than a small fraction of the panels, even if she or he was a fast runner and knew his or her way around the building like the architects who designed it. So the best we can do is give you a sketchy report summarizing MR’s participation.

The theme of the Conference was “A World to Win: from the Manifesto to New Organizing for Social Change.” MR panels were all well attended and received, in particular the panel “One Hundred and Fifty Years after the Communist Manifesto,” which opened the Conference on Saturday morning with Samir Amin, Daniel Singer, Ellen Wood, Aijaz Ahmad, Paul Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff speaking. (We are printing in this issue of MR Paul Sweezy’s presentation given at this panel and also Daniel Singer’s talk from the Sunday evening plenary.)

MR’s other panels included “Rising From the Ashes: Labor in the Age of Global Capital,” with Bill Fletcher, Kim Moody, Michael Yates, and chair Ellen Wood; “Capitalism and the Media,” with Ed Herman, Joan Greenbaum, John Foster, and chair John Simon; “The Southeast Asian Crisis: Imperialism and Financial Capital,” with William K Tabb, David McNally, John Lie, David Kotz, and chair Harry Magdoff; “Are Left Intellectuals Irrelevant?”, with Michael Lowy, Aijaz Ahmad, Ellen Wood and chair Christopher Phelps; “A Chinese Model of Development?”, with Samir Amin, Nirmal Chandra, Sheng-Yu Liu, and chair John Mage; “Race and Class,” with Antonia Darder, Michael Goldfield, Joel Washington, David Abdulah, and chair Kira Brunner. Unfortunately, a scheduled debate “Ecology and Social Change,” between John Foster and David Harvey with Barbra Epstein as chair had to be called off because of Harvey’s illness, but Barbra andJohn did an excellent job of discussing the topic, and the audience got very much involved and asked excellent questions.

From our point of view the entire Conference was a great success, as well as a kind of unofficial kick-off to the many other conferences this year aimed at commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. An important meeting on the same theme—almost a sister conference to the SSC ’98—will take place in Paris in May, and MR has plans to participate. We did hear a few complaints about the SSC; for example some said that the Conferences are becoming “too Marxist.” If anyone wants to accuse us at MR of aiding and abetting this trend, we gladly plead guilty! Finally, in book and magazine sales at our display table, we set a new record. Best sellers were MR Press’s new edition of the Manifesto and Samir Amin’s Spectres of Capitalism.

Speaking of the Manifesto’s 150th anniversary, we’re marking the occasion in this issue with articles either about that great work or reflecting on the directions in which capitalism and Communism are moving 150 years later. Readers will notice that we’re marking another anniversary too: the beginning of volume 50 of Monthly Review, and with it, the beginning of our 50th year. We’ve made some changes in the format of the magazine: changing the size for purely practical reasons—because some sharp observers have noticed that it tends to disappear on magazine racks made for larger formats; changing over to what’s called “perfect binding” so that the name will appear on the spine; and, while we’re at it, making some minor changes in the cover design. If readers want to see some kind of symbolism in these changes, we hope it will convey the message that the basic values of MR and its commitment to socialist politics remain the same, while we always try to be creative in our responses to changing realities.

[mr-bequest]

Why Socialism?

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

The Communist Manifesto Today

I’ve probably read the Communist Manifesto a dozen times, more or less. But it never struck me as old hat. It was always worth reading again. So I thought that in preparation for this panel, I should read it once more, this time with special attention to insights and formulations that seem particularly relevant to the problems we face in the world as the twenty-first century approaches

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