In this issue we are reprinting C. Wright Mills’s “Psychology and Social Science” from the October 1958 issue of Monthly Review. The argument of this piece was subsequently incorporated in Mills’s Sociological Imagination, which appeared fifty years ago this year, and constituted a powerful indictment of mainstream social science. Both “Psychology and Social Science” and the larger Sociological Imagination were strongly influenced by “the principle of historical specificity” as described in Karl Korsch’s Karl Marx. Mills used this to construct a radical challenge to the prevailing notion of a permanent “human nature,” applicable to all societies and social situations. He later referred to The Sociological Imagination — in a letter to an imaginary Soviet correspondent (part of a work he was writing, to be called Letter to a Russian Intellectual) — as “a kind of ‘Anti-Duhring,’” constituting his radical break with ahistorical social science.
The principle of endless accumulation that defines capitalism is synonymous with exponential growth, and the latter, like cancer, leads to death. John Stuart Mill, who recognized this, imagined that a “stationary state of affairs” would put an end to this irrational process. John Maynard Keynes shared this optimism of Reason. But neither was equipped to understand how the necessary overcoming of capitalism could prevail. By contrast, Marx, by giving proper importance to the emerging class struggle, could imagine the reversal of power of the capitalist class, concentrated today in the hands of the ruling oligarchy.
The original intent of The Vulnerable Planet,when it was first published fifteen years ago, was to provide a brief historical materialist analysis of the development of the global ecological crisis, beginning with the early civilizations and leading up to the monopoly capitalist society of the late twentieth century. Looking back now at the book as it was originally written—and at the second edition published five years later, incorporating a few minor changes plus an afterword—I see no major point on which the analysis has proven to be substantially wrong or where it needs significant revision. Nevertheless, the last decade and a half has witnessed an acceleration of history with respect to the human relation to the environment, adding force to the concerns that the book expressed.
Civil rights lawyer Jeffrey Haas, a founder, in 1969, of Chicago’s People’s Law Office, has written one of the top books of the year: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009). The story could not be more worth telling. Police response to the 1960s upsurge of the black community was immediate and brutal, especially after the growth of a mass student and youth movement opposed to the Vietnam War. The FBI, as the leading U.S. secret police force, engaged in a nationwide campaign of provocation, infiltration, and assassination, code named the Counterintelligence Program, or “COINTELPRO.” The resulting murders, on December 4, 1969, of charismatic, twenty-one-year-old Chicago Black Panther state chairman Fred Hampton and twenty-two-year-old Black Panther Mark Clark were a pivotal event in the suppression of militant black resistance and the emergence of today’s U.S. police/prison state. The gradual collapse of the Nixon presidency and public outcry against White House-ordered burglaries opened a window permitting the exposure of secret police crimes, including the Hampton assassination. Jeffrey Haas and his partners at the People’s Law Office made good use of this opportunity through determined and creative litigation, and uncovered the story recounted in his book. But the window was slammed shut in succeeding years, and was finally removed entirely—to be replaced by the blank prison wall of the USA Patriot Act. Hampton’s story is no longer primarily a U.S. concern, but one that affects everyone in the world. It is the story of the path to Abu Ghraib. We interviewed Jeffrey Haas in late September 2009.
There are widespread misconceptions about numerous aspects of the Chinese revolution. These include a misreading of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the “reforms” of the post-Mao era, and the reaction of the overwhelming mass of the peasantry to these movements. Although the revolutionary programs/movements resulted in significant hardships—on the rural population (the Great Leap Forward, 1958-61) or the intellectuals (the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76)—they both produced concrete achievements in the countryside that led to impressive gains in agricultural production and in people’s lives. In contrast, the post-Mao era “reforms” have resulted so far in a huge growth of inequality in China, with the rural population suffering greatly by the dismantling of public support for health and education. In addition, local and regional officials have sold farmland for development purposes, usually lining their own pockets, with inadequate compensation for the farmers. This has resulted in the current massive unrest in rural areas, involving literally hundreds of thousands of incidents with protesting farmers.
The Monthly Review sixtieth anniversary celebration at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on September 17, 2009, was a great success. A large crowd turned out to hear Grace Lee Boggs, John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, Fred Magdoff, Michael Tigar, Toshi Reagon (providing music), and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and to celebrate MR’s birthday. We would like to thank all those who participated in this extraordinary event. Dr. Wright captured the tone of the evening, declaring that: “Militarism, capitalism and racism, domestic oppression, foreign military aggression, victims of neo-colonialism, victims of community and national racism, and the Cold War days in its infancy to the needless war in Vietnam in its [MR‘s] second decade, through wars of greed in Afghanistan and Iraq in [its] sixth decade” were all incisively covered by the magazine. He spoke of Monthly Review‘s indefatigable insistence on the need to put “people before profits,” and its unflinching criticisms of inequality, injustice, and the realities of capitalism. (See Daa’iya L. Sanusi, Amsterdam News, September 24-30, 2009)
Today orthodox economics is reputedly being harnessed to an entirely new end: saving the planet from the ecological destruction wrought by capitalist expansion. It promises to accomplish this through the further expansion of capitalism itself, cleared of its excesses and excrescences. A growing army of self-styled “sustainable developers” argues that there is no contradiction between the unlimited accumulation of capital—the credo of economic liberalism from Adam Smith to the present—and the preservation of the earth. The system can continue to expand by creating a new “sustainable capitalism,” bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. In reality, these visions amount to little more than a renewed strategy for profiting on planetary destruction.
Our Ecological Footprint by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees (1996) instigated a major strand in radical social thinking about construction of the future. The authors not only defined a new concept — that of an ecological footprint — they also developed a metric for it, whose units are defined in terms of “global hectares,” comparing the biological capacity of societies/countries (their ability to produce and reproduce the conditions for life on the planet) with their consumption of resources made available to them by this bio-capacity. The authors’ conclusions are worrying.
Today the capitalist economies of the world are in deep trouble. Some economists have theorized that the linkages between the United States and the rest of the world had been weakened as other nations gained more economic autonomy. A decoupling thesis was presented claiming that a crisis in one part of the system (say, North America) would not affect other major parts (say, Europe and Asia). We now know this is not true. Toxic assets were sold around the world, and banks in Europe, Asia, and Japan are in trouble too. Housing bubbles have burst in Ireland, Spain, and many other countries. In Eastern Europe, homes were bought with loans from Swiss, Austrian, and other European banks, payable in European currencies. As the economies of Hungary and other nations in the region, which financed their explosive growth with heavy borrowing from Western banks, have gone into recession, their currencies have suffered a sharp deterioration in exchange rates. This means that mortgage payments have risen sharply, as it now takes many more units of local currency to buy the Swiss francs or euros needed to pay the loans. In some cases, mortgage payments have doubled.
In a recent article entitled “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis” (Monthly Review, June 2009), Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna sought to account for the surprising stability of civilian government spending (non-defense government consumption and investment) as a percentage of GDP during a period, roughly 1970 to the present, when the power of capital over labor increased, inequality grew, and cuts in government programs for the poor and working class continued more or less without abatement. One solution to the paradox, the authors persuasively argued, was the growth in spending for “the penal state,” a political regime marked by the mass incarceration of the poor and the vulnerable who posed risks to the stability of the prevailing economic and social order.
Something is wrong with our agricultural and food systems.1 Despite great progress in increasing productivity in the last century, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry and malnourished. Further hundreds of millions eat too much, or consume the wrong sorts of food, and it is making them ill. The health of the environment suffers too, as degradation of soil and water seems to accompany many of the agricultural systems we have developed in recent years. Can nothing be done, or is it time for the expansion of an agriculture founded more on ecological principles and in harmony with people, their societies, and cultures?
Adrienne Rich is the author of more than sixteen volumes of poetry and five nonfiction prose books, the most recent being A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society (Norton). She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1999 Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.
We recently received a very thoughtful letter from Ted Trainer, an Australian ecological socialist (author of Abandon Affluence! and Saving the Environment) who teaches at the University of New South Wales, asking us about the “surplus problem” and its relation to borrowing in the present economic crisis. We wrote a short reply with our answers. —Eds.
At the time of this writing (late August), the business news in the United States is full of discussions of “recovery” from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yet, while the economy appears to have bottomed out and a recovery of sorts may be in the works, this is in many ways misleading. Although a technical or formal recovery seems quite likely by the end of the year — with a small increase in economic growth mainly due to inventory restocking — it is unlikely to feel like a recovery to most individuals in the society. This is because official unemployment is projected to rise to the low double-digits by the end of this year or the beginning of next year — with the numbers of those dropping out of the labor market due to discouragement, or seeking part-time work because they are unable to obtain a full-time job, also growing. All of this points to a “jobless” and “wageless” recovery. As New York University economist Nouriel Roubini wrote in an August 13 column for Forbes.com, “It is very difficult to argue that the U.S. economy is not still in a recession while the labor market is still weak.” Indeed, what is really at issue is not simply recession and recovery but the longer-term structural crisis of capitalism. This is the subject of the Review of the Month, which seeks to place the current crisis in the context of the long-term development of capital accumulation and crisis.
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.” 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.