In 1832, when the global cholera pandemic was approaching Manchester—as a young Frederick Engels was later to recount in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)—“a universal terror seized the bourgeoisie of the city. People remembered the unwholesome dwellings of the poor, and trembled before the certainty that each of these slums would become a centre for the plague, whence it would spread desolation in all directions through the houses of the propertied class.” As a result, Engels noted, various official inquiries were commissioned into the condition of the poor. But little was done in the end to combat the social factors that facilitated the spread of the disease.… One can see an analogous situation today in the growing concern that has materialized in the United States and other wealthy nations over the Ebola epidemic in Africa.
István Mészáros is one of the greatest philosophers that the historical materialist tradition has yet produced. His work stands practically alone today in the depth of its analysis of Marx’s theory of alienation, the structural crisis of capital, the demise of Soviet-style post-revolutionary societies, and the necessary conditions of the transition to socialism. His dialectical inquiry into social structure and forms of consciousness—a systematic critique of the prevailing forms of thought—is unequaled in our time. No less a historical figure than Hugo Chávez referred to him as the “pathfinder” of twenty-first century socialism.… The role of this foreword is to help to put his system of thought as a whole, and this book in particular, in their historical contexts, while illuminating some of the distinctive concepts governing his analysis.
The media compelled all of us to follow closely both the Scottish referendum of September 2014 and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that took on increased momentum starting in spring 2014. We all heard two opposing stories: the unity of Great Britain must be protected in the interest of the English and Scottish people. Moreover, the Scots freely chose, through a democratic vote, to remain in the Union. In contrast, we were told that the independence of Ukraine, freely chosen by the Ukrainian people, is being threatened by the Great Russian expansionist aims of the dictator Putin. Let us look at these facts that were presented to us as incontrovertibly obvious for a good-faith observer.
The American continent was the first region to be integrated into newborn global capitalism and to be shaped into a periphery of the European Atlantic centers, themselves still undergoing formation. That shaping was a process of unparalleled brutality. The English, just as they did in Australia and New Zealand, proceeded immediately to the total genocide of the indigenous population. The Spaniards reduced them to a state of virtual slavery that, despite its catastrophic demographic effects, did not efface the Indian presence. Both, along with the Portuguese and the French, finished shaping the continent with the slave trade. The exploitation of this first periphery of historical capitalism was based on setting up a system of production to export agricultural (sugar, cotton) and mineral products.… Independence, when gained by the local white ruling classes, did not change that setup. Latin America (with today a mere 8.4 percent of world population) and Africa have small populations, relative to East, South, and Southeast Asia, but are endowed with fabulously rich natural resources (in mineral deposits and potentially arable land). For that reason those regions were doomed to remain subject to systematic grand-scale pillage, exclusively for purposes of capital accumulation in the dominant centers—Europe and the United States.
On February 25, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the public comment period for the environmental assessment of the AquAdvantage Salmon. Their review of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.” Numerous fishermen, consumer safety advocates, public health officials, ecologists, and risk assessment experts submitted comments that directly challenged this finding. Despite the opposition, it is very likely that the FDA’s approval of this genetically engineered salmon and precedent-setting regulatory process is imminent.… The aquaculture industry and corporate investors are championing this recent development in food biotechnology. They propose that this “invention” will yield ecological benefits, such as preserving wild salmon, while enhancing efficiency.… Unfortunately, the discussion of fisheries and oceans is constrained by ideological justifications that prevent a comprehensive assessment.… [The alternative approach presented here focuses on] how the logic of capital has shaped production and commodification processes. It also highlights how the most recent case of biotechnology in relation to salmon serves the needs of capital by increasing control of biological and ecological systems in order to better conform to economic dictates. The genetic modification of salmon is part of a biological speedup, whereby natural processes are transformed to achieve faster rates of return in the food marketplace.
Every book more than a few years old needs to be seen within the historical context in which it was written—works of social science most of all. Re-reading Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature today, nearly a decade and a half after its first publication, reminds me of how different in some respects the historical context was then, at the end of the twentieth century, from what we face today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.… A decade and a half ago the contribution of Marx and Marxism to the understanding of ecology was seen in almost entirely negative terms, even by many self-styled ecosocialists. Today Marx’s understanding of the ecological problem is being studied in universities worldwide and is inspiring ecological actions around the globe.… These changes are of course connected. As the environmental problems engendered by capitalist society have worsened, the necessary movements of ecological defense have radicalized and spread across the face of the planet.
On September 20, 2014, while corporate and government officials arrived in New York City for the UN Climate Summit, organizers and activists from around the world participated in a peoples’ summit called the NYC Climate Convergence (organized by the Global Climate Convergence and System Change Not Climate Change). The NYC Climate Convergence featured as the lead keynote speaker Naomi Klein, who presented the analysis of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014). Her concluding chapter, significantly, is entitled “Leap Years: Just Enough Time for the Impossible.” Monthly Review readers will be interested that Klein observes in her book: “Karl Marx… recognized capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with the ‘natural laws of life itself’”. Later she refers to “global capitalism’s voracious metabolism”.
Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has it been so apparent that the core capitalist economies are experiencing secular stagnation, characterized by slow growth, rising unemployment and underemployment, and idle productive capacity. Consequently, mainstream economics is finally beginning to recognize the economic stagnation tendency that has long been a focus in these pages, although it has yet to develop a coherent analysis of the phenomenon. Accompanying the long-term decline in the growth trend has been an extraordinary increase in economic inequality, which one of us labeled “The Great Inequality,” and which has recently been dramatized by the publication of French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Taken together, these two realities of deepening stagnation and growing inequality have created a severe crisis for orthodox (or neoclassical) economics.
The term multitude was first used in Europe, it seems, by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, to whom Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explicitly refer. It then designated the “common people” who were a majority in the cities of the Ancien Régime and deprived of participation in political power (reserved for the monarch and the aristocracy), economic power (reserved for property owners of feudal ancestry or for the nascent financial bourgeoisie, both urban and rural—including the rich peasants), and social power (reserved for the Church and its clerics). The status of the common people varied. In the city, they were artisans, small merchants, pieceworkers, paupers, and beggars; in the country, they were landless. The common people in the cities were restless and frequently exploded into violent insurrections. They were often mobilized by others—particularly the nascent bourgeoisie, the active component of the Third Estate in France—in their conflicts with the aristocracy.
China is facing many serious environmental issues, including pollution in the air, groundwater, and soil. These problems have increased since China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy—and in spite of the Chinese government’s 2007 proposal to build an “ecological civilization,” and writing “ecological civilization” into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constitution in 2012. Take air pollution as an example; not long ago, cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai witnessed record-breaking smog. Concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) reached more than forty times recommended safety levels. In China, up to half a million die each year because of air pollution, according to Chen Zhu, the former health minister of China.… What caused these serious environmental problems? A prevailing explanation is that China “lacks the rule of law”—especially environmental law.… Besides the legal issue, there are three factors responsible for China’s severe ecological crisis: (1) seriously underestimating the power of interest groups and the harmful consequence of capital; (2) the worship of growth or development; (3) an anthropocentric worldview.
Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen poetry books, most recently The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2010 (Knopf, 2011). Her most recent novel is Sex Wars (Harper Perennial, 2005) and she has just published her first collection of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc. (PM Press, 2014).
Secular stagnation (or the trend towards long-term slow growth and continuing high unemployment/underemployment) has become a big issue in the mature economies since 2013, when former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers raised the question at an IMF economic forum. Compilations of work on the subject can now be found on the Internet, such as the one by economists Coen Teulings and Richard Baldwin; which however leaves out all contributions by heterodox economists. Teulings and Baldwin credit Summers with having “resurrected” the secular stagnation issue. But is this true? Only in the sense that he reintroduced it to mainstream neoclassical economics. It has long been a topic on the left, and particularly in Monthly Review, where editor Paul Sweezy explicitly drew attention to the “secular stagnation” question more than forty years ago—with MR tracking the stagnation trend month by month in the four decades that followed.… Isn’t it about time…that orthodox economists, Summers included, began to acknowledge the enormous work done on this topic on the left over decades, and indeed the greater complexity and historicity of the analysis to be found there—not only in MR but within heterodox economics more generally? Such an admission might even do orthodox economists some good.
Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, first published forty years ago in 1974, was unquestionably the work that, in the words of historian Bryan Palmer, “literally christened the emerging field of labor process studies.” In the four decades since its appearance Braverman’s book has continued to play a central role in debates on workers’ struggles within industry, remaining indispensable to all attempts at in-depth critique in this area.… This continuing relevance of Braverman’s analysis has to do with the fact that his overall vision of the transformations taking place in modern work relations was much wider than has usually been recognized. Viewed from a wide camera angle, his work sought to capture the complex relation between the labor process on the one hand, and the changing structure and composition of the working class and its reserve armies on the other. This broad view allowed him to perceive how the changes in the labor process were integrally connected to the emergence of whole new spheres of production, the decomposition and recomposition of the working class in various sectors, and the development of new structural contradictions.
While he was preparing for his critique of political economy, Marx produced an enormous quantity of excerpt notebooks. Sometimes accompanied by his own comments, they largely consist of direct quotes from various books, journals, and newspaper articles that attracted his attention. Although they were neglected among Marxist scholars for quite a long time without publication in any languages, these notebooks, in addition to the manuscripts and letters, constitute an invaluable original source for understanding Marx’s thinking process.… Marx’s notebooks record his ceaseless efforts to grasp the totality of capitalism, and, since Capital remains unfinished, they provide useful hints for speculating how Marx would have completed his project of critique of political economy.… As an attempt to comprehend the development of Marx’s theory through his notebooks, this paper analyzes his excerpts from books by two agricultural chemists, Justus von Liebig and James F.W. Johnston, in order to reveal a significant modification in regard to Marx’s attitude towards modern agricultural practice, which led his to study the natural sciences even more intensively in his late years.
The cover of Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Radicals on the Road features a sepia-toned photograph of Eldridge Cleaver raising his fist in a Black Power salute behind three Vietnamese women in combat helmets, one of whom is kneeling behind an anti-aircraft gun. While you have probably seen a similar photograph of Jane Fonda from her North Vietnam trip in 1972, images like that of Cleaver are less common, if circulated at all. In this second book by Wu, she documents three sets of journeys, like Cleaver’s, that have remained at the margins of both the scholarship and the popular memory of the antiwar movement.