As the United States braces itself for the onset of a recession, much of the blame for the current downturn is being attributed to the recent subprime mortgage crisis. While boom and bust cycles in real estate markets are nothing new, what distinguishes the current crisis is that the massive run-up in home prices was driven by the proliferation of new forms of securitized finance that permitted massive sums of loan capital to be pumped into the property markets. Only a few years prior these exotic financial products were being touted for their ability to hedge risk and achieve a more efficient allocation of credit. Buoyed by an exuberant sense that the wizards of Wall Street had so thoroughly transformed the nature of risk that the rules of the game had been fundamentally altered, investor demand for these securities exploded, and the underwriting and trading of these new forms of engineered debt underwent an extraordinary period of growth…
Paul M. Sweezy was, in the words of his contemporary John Kenneth Galbraith, “the most distinguished of present-day American Marxists.” A Harvard-trained economist, his writings spanned some seven decades from the early 1930s to the closing years of the twentieth century. For more than half a century he was coeditor of Monthly Review, subtitled An Independent Socialist Magazine, which he founded along with Leo Huberman in 1949. Although first and foremost an economist, Sweezy was also a social scientist in a much broader sense. His impact on political science, sociology, history, and other disciplines was profound. He took the entire globe as his field of analysis, helping to enlarge our understanding of imperialism and of the necessity of revolution, particularly in the third world.
Adrienne Rich’s most recent book is Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006. A selection of her essays, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, appeared in 2003. She edited Muriel Rukeyser’s Selected Poems for the Library of America. She is a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, among other awards.
Few U.S. revolutionaries of her generation have “lived to tell the tale” like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, to borrow the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s memoirs. Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years is the last volume of a trilogy including Red Dirt: Growing up Okie (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years (City Lights, 2001). Although influenced by oral traditions in his “native” Colombian Caribbean, García Márquez has little to say about his own political commitments, or Colombian politics more generally. In contrast, influenced by traditions of storytelling native to rural Oklahoma and Native American communities throughout the U.S. West, Dunbar-Ortiz’s latest memoir puts flesh on the bones of the slogan “the personal is political.” The phrase, she notes, was coined within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and carried into the women’s liberation and antiwar movements.
At the crossroads of Buenos Aires’s shopping district sits a posh mall called the Galerías Pacífico, a showcase for global brand names and a playground for Argentina’s rich. One day, a film crew descended to the basement. There they found an abandoned torture chamber, its walls still etched with names, dates, and messages from political prisoners disappeared under the military junta. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein goes digging deep into the basements of global capitalism, from the torture labs of Latin America to the oil fields of Iraq, unearthing the bodies and catching the culprits red-handed. In the process, she demolishes one of the great myths of our time: that free markets go hand in hand with free societies, and that globalized free enterprise brings peace and democracy. Instead, as Klein documents in this definitive history, the new world order is the product of three decades of free-market terror, torture, and shock.
The United States and the world economy are now experiencing a major economic setback that began in the financial sector with the bursting of the housing bubble, but which can ultimately be traced back to the basic problems of capitalism arising from class-based accumulation (see the Review of the Month in this issue).…Things are clearly much worse, with respect to the general public understanding of these problems, here in the United States, the citadel of capitalism, than elsewhere in the world. We were therefore bemused by an article entitled “Europe’s Philosophy of Failure” by Stefan Theil, Newsweek‘s European economics editor, appearing in the January–February 2008 Foreign Policy. Theil writes of the “prejudice and disinformation” incorporated in French and German secondary school textbooks dealing with economics. Such textbooks he complains “ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism.”
With the benefit of hindsight, few now doubt that the housing bubble that induced most of the recent growth of the U.S. economy was bound to burst or that a general financial crisis and a global economic slowdown were to be the unavoidable results. Warning signs were evident for years to all of those not taken in by the new financial alchemy of high-risk debt management, and not blinded, as was much of the corporate world, by huge speculative profits. This can be seen in a series of articles that appeared in this space: “The Household Debt Bubble” (May 2006), “The Explosion of Debt and Speculation” (November 2006), “Monopoly-Finance Capital” (December 2006), and “The Financialization of Capitalism” (April 2007).
Until recently, the global capitalist economy has enjoyed a period of comparative tranquility and grown at a relatively rapid pace since the global economic crisis of 2001–02. During this period of global economic expansion there have been several important economic and political developments. First, the United States—the declining hegemonic power but still the leading driving force of the global capitalist economy—has been characterized by growing internal and external financial imbalances. The U.S. economy has experienced a period of debt-financed, consumption-led “expansion” with stagnant wages and employment, and has been running large and rising current account deficits (the current account deficit is a broad measure of the trade deficit). Second, China has become a major player in the global capitalist economy and has been playing an increasingly important role in sustaining global economic growth. Third, global capitalist accumulation is imposing growing pressure on the world’s natural resources and environment. There is increasingly convincing evidence that the global oil production will reach its peak and start to decline in a few years. Fourth, the U.S. imperialist adventure in the Middle East has suffered devastating setbacks and there has been growing resistance to neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world.
The July–August 2007 crisis in subprime mortgage markets precipitated the collapse of the market for asset-backed securities, forcing huge write-downs of more than $45 billion on the balance sheets of major banks. In the aftershock, interbank lending dried up. Bond insurers and money market funds were beset by a loss of confidence as the credit squeeze spread. The plunge in stock markets in January 2008 suggests that the repercussions of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market are still working their way through financial markets. With over 170,000 jobs lost and the expected spate of foreclosures, many observers believe that the credit crunch has pushed the economy towards a recession.
Capitalism and market economy are not synonymous, as the dominant political discourse and conventional economists would have one believe. The specific characteristic of capitalism as a system is that it is based on private ownership of the means of production; an ownership which by definition is that of a privileged minority. This private ownership (aside from land ownership) has taken the form of exclusive rights over important equipment associated with modern production technologies, from the first industrial revolution at the close of the eighteenth century to the present day. The majority of non-owners are thus obliged to sell their labor power: capital employs labor; labor has no free use of the means of production. The bourgeois/proletarian divide defines capitalism; the market is only the management form of capital’s social economy.
This month marks the fifth year of the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq, which commenced on March 19, 2003. Despite setbacks for the U.S. empire, including unexpected losses in lives and money as a result of the continuing resistance of the Iraqi population, this war has succeeded in the U.S. imperial objective of eliminating Iraq, once a powerful force in the Middle East, as a nation to be reckoned with. Much of its population is dead, displaced, and divided. Its infrastructure is in tatters. The country is occupied on a seemingly permanent basis by U.S. military forces, allowing Washington to project its power more fully in the region, and making it easier to threaten Iraq’s neighbor Iran. Iraqi oil, designated as a vital strategic asset by Washington, is now largely in the grip of the U.S. empire.
Bad times inhibit good writers, but they also inspire them. Just look at the new and recent arrivals in bookstores and libraries. The double-barreled assault on civil liberties and human rights, by the administration of President George Walker Bush, has, if nothing else, spurred an outpouring of books, both fiction and nonfiction, condemning the erosion of American democracy and the perceived drift toward totalitarianism. Jack London—the best-selling twentieth-century American author, who was born in 1876, the year of the American Centenary, and who died in 1916, the year before the United States entered the First World War—would surely not be surprised. In fact, one might well anoint London the founding father of the contemporary body of literature about political repression, including Henry Giroux’s The Emerging Authoritarianism in the United States, Matthew Rothschild’s You Have No Rights, Chris Hedges’s American Fascists, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Crimes Against Nature, and Philip Roth’s disquieting 2003 novel The Plot Against America. Of course, there are many others that cover much the same terrain.
In March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan. Much of the information on his movements and whereabouts is believed to have come from interrogations of his two children, aged six and eight. The children are known to have been held in an adult detention facility for at least four months while they were interrogated. During this time, according to one witness, “the boys were kept in a separate area upstairs, and were denied food and water by other guards. They were also mentally tortured by having ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding.” After that, they disappeared into the system and nothing more was heard about them. Their current whereabouts and condition are unknown. The United States has sunk to kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, and then “disappearing” children in order to get at their parents. What were once dark and unlikely rumors have gradually proven to be true: many men, women, and yes, children have been abducted around the world and fed into the maw of the American system.
Rodrigo Granda is a member of and the leading international spokesperson for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC–EP). His name gained global prominence in December 2004 when he was kidnapped in Venezuela and handed over to Colombian authorities by a number of Venezuelan National Guard soldiers seeking a reward placed on his head by the Colombian government. At the time of his capture Granda was attending a meeting of the Bolivarian Peoples Movements in Caracas. Granda’s kidnapping in Venezuela at the instigation of the Colombian government created an international dispute between Venezuela and Colombia. He was released in 2007 in response to pressures exerted on the Colombian government by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The collapse by century’s end of most of the post-revolutionary social experiments of the twentieth century put socialists nearly everywhere on the defensive. Today’s call for a “socialism for the twenty-first century” is an attempt to transcend this defensive posture and to engage fully with the most urgent problem of our time: the creation of a sustainable socialist order. In this respect, “István Mészáros,” in the words of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, “is someone who lights up the road. He points to the core of the argument we must make in order to go beyond the defensive attitude in which the world’s peoples and revolutionary movements find themselves, and to take the offensive, throughout the world, in moving toward socialism” (quoted from back cover of Mészáros, O desafio e o fardo do tempo histórico [Sáo Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2007]; English edition, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time [forthcoming from Monthly Review Press, 2008]).