Thursday April 24th, 2014, 10:01 am (EDT)

Fred Magdoff

The Plight of the U.S. Working Class

Modern capitalism, sociologist Max Weber famously observed early in the twentieth century, is based on “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor.” But the “rationality” of the system in this sphere, as Weber was to acknowledge elsewhere, was so restrictive as to be in reality “irrational.” Despite its formal freedom, labor under capitalism was substantively unfree.… This was in accordance with the argument advanced in Karl Marx’s Capital. Since the vast majority of individuals in the capitalist system are divorced from the means of production they have no other way to survive but to sell their labor power to those who own these means, that is, the capitalist class.… The result is a strong tendency to the polarization of income and wealth in society. The more the social productivity of labor grows the more it serves to promote the wealth and power of private capital, while at the same time increasing the relative poverty and economic dependency of the workers.… | more |

Twenty-First-Century Land Grabs

Accumulation by Agricultural Dispossession

Land grabs—whether initiated by multinational corporations and private investment firms emanating from the capitalist core, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, or state entities such as China and India—are now in the news constantly. For example, in July 2013 the Colombian ambassador to the United States resigned over his participation in a legally questionable effort to help the U.S. corporation Cargill use shell companies to amass 130,000 acres of land. This land was supposed to be used for agricultural production, but there is also land being grabbed for other purposes—such as mining or to construct roads, buildings, and dams. In human terms, land grabs mean real people and families are dispossessed. When people lose access to their land, they also lose their means to obtain food, their communities, and their cultures.… | more |

Class War and Labor’s Declining Share

Given [the] background of high unemployment, lower-wage jobs, and smaller portions of the pie going to workers, it should come as no surprise that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 50 million people in the United States live in poverty (with income in 2011 below $23,021 for a family of four) while another 50 million live between the poverty level and twice the poverty level—one paycheck away from economic disaster. Thus, the poor (those in poverty or near poverty), most of whom belong to the working poor, account for approximately 100 million people, fully one-third of the entire U.S. population.… Wage repression and high unemployment are the dominant realities of our time. A vast redistribution of income—Robin Hood in reverse—is occurring that is boosting the share of income to capital, even in a stagnating economy. Is it any wonder, then, that for years on end polls have shown a majority of the population agreeing with the statement that the United States is on the wrong track and not headed in the right direction?… | more |

Global Resource Depletion

Is Population the Problem?

Within the current system, there are steps that can and should be taken to lessen the environmental problems associated with the limits of growth: the depletion of resource taps and the overflowing of waste sinks, both of which threaten the future of humanity.… [H]owever, …attempts to trace these problems, and particularly the problem of depletion natural resources, to population growth are generally misdirected. The economic causes of depletion are the issues that must be vigorously addressed (though population growth remains a secondary factor). The starting point for any meaningful attempt actually to solve these problems must begin with the mode of production and its unending quest for ever-higher amounts of capital accumulation regardless of social and environmental costs—with the negative results that a portion of society becomes fabulously rich while others remain poor and the environment is degraded at a planetary level.… | more |

Harmony and Ecological Civilization

Beyond the Capitalist Alienation of Nature

When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.… | more |

Marx and Engels and “Small Is Beautiful”

I am a regular reader of Monthly Review. I read with interest the recent articles on ecology and Marxism…. It is true that Marx and Engels conceived that capitalism engenders a “metabolic rift” in nature and society. But both of them emphasized that the industrial growth that socialism would produce is beyond imagination under capitalism…. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was impossible for Marx and Engels to envisage the ecological catastrophe that a constantly expanding industrial society can ensue.… | more |

Food as a Commodity

Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.… | more |

The Jobs Disaster in the United States

The Great Recession in the United States, which lasted eighteen months, the longest downturn since the 1930s Depression, was declared over and done as of July 2009. The economy has been growing, albeit slowly, since then, and the output of goods and services (Gross Domestic Product or GDP) has returned to pre-recession levels. U.S. corporate profits have soared, and most of the big banks, after being bailed out, have been making piles of money. However, rising production and profits have not been accompanied by the return to work of millions of unemployed people, many of whom have been out of work for numerous months and have little prospect of future employment.… This essay will focus on the jobs disaster in the United States, although the problem is global. The United States is where the crisis began, and it is still the world’s richest and most powerful nation. What happens here has serious repercussions for everyone in the world. In addition, the disconnect between economic reality and the propaganda of recovery is greatest in the United States. So a close examination of what is happening in this country is instructive, not just for those of us who live here, but for those in the rest of the world as well.… | more |

What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know about Capitalism

What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know about Capitalism

There is a growing consensus that the planet is heading toward environmental catastrophe: climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, global freshwater use, loss of biodiversity, and chemical pollution all threaten our future unless we act. What is less clear is how humanity should respond. The contemporary environmental movement is the site of many competing plans and prescriptions, and composed of a diverse set of actors, from militant activists to corporate chief executives.… | more |

Ecological Civilization

Given the overwhelming harm being done to the world’s environment and to its people, it is essential today to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization—one that exists in harmony with natural systems—instead of trying to overwhelm and dominate nature. This is not just an ethical issue; it is essential for our survival as a species and the survival of many other species that we reverse the degradation of the earth’s life support systems that once provided dependable climate, clean air, clean water (fresh and ocean), bountiful oceans, and healthy and productive soils.… There are numerous ways to approach and think about the enormous harm that has been done to the environment. I will discuss the following: (1) the critical characteristics that underlie strong ecosystems; (2) why societies are not adequately implementing ecological approaches; and (3) how we might use characteristics of strong natural ecosystems as a framework to consider a future ecological civilization… | more |

The Great Financial Crisis—Three Years On

The Great Financial Crisis began in the summer of 2007 and three years later, despite a putative “recovery,” it is still having profound effects in the United States, Europe, and in much of the world. Austerity is being forced on working people in many countries. Matters are especially difficult in Greece, a country that is being compelled by the demands of bankers, including the International Monetary Fund, to squeeze its workers in return for loans from abroad to help pay down government debts. Official unemployment in the United States is still around 10 percent, and real unemployment is much higher. An unprecedented 44 percent of the officially unemployed have been without work for over six months. A record number of people are receiving government food assistance as well as meals and groceries from charities. Many U.S. states and cities, facing large shortfalls in their budgets due to falling tax revenues, are cutting jobs and reducing funding for schools and social programs… | more |

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December 2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”… | more |

What Needs To Be Done: A Socialist View

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.… | more |

An Overview of the Food and Agriculture Crisis

“Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?,” asks the title of an article by Lester Brown in Scientific American (May 2009). Just a few years ago, such a question would have seemed almost laughable. Few will be surprised by it today.… | more |

In 2008 people woke up to a tsunami of hunger sweeping the world. Although the prospect of rising hunger has loomed on the horizon for years, the present crisis seemed to come out of the blue without warning. Food riots spread through many countries in the global South as people tried to obtain a portion of what appeared to be a rapidly shrinking supply of food, and many governments were destabilized.… | more |

Financial Implosion and Stagnation

“The first rule of central banking,” economist James K. Galbraith wrote recently, is that “when the ship starts to sink, central bankers must bail like hell.” In response to a financial crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve and other central banks, backed by their treasury departments, have been “bailing like hell” for more than a year. Beginning in July 2007 when the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds that had speculated heavily in mortgage-backed securities signaled the onset of a major credit crunch, the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury Department have pulled out all the stops as finance has imploded. They have flooded the financial sector with hundreds of billions of dollars and have promised to pour in trillions more if necessary—operating on a scale and with an array of tools that is unprecedented.… | more |

The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels

The huge increase in oil and other fuel prices over the last few years and a concern that we have reached (or will soon reach) peak oil—after which oil extraction begins to decrease—have created renewed interest in alternative sources of energy. These include solar, wind, ocean wave and tidal flow, geothermal, and biofuels. Sometimes lip service is given to the need for greater energy efficiency, changes in lifestyles (including the ecologically irrational over-reliance on automobiles and living far from one’s job), the need to redesign economic activity from the factory floor to office buildings and homes, and the need for affluent societies to move away from ever higher levels of consumption. However, a radical analysis of actually putting these into effect would lead to questioning the very basics of how capitalism works… | more |

The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions

An acute food crisis has struck the world in 2008. This is on top of a longer-term crisis of agriculture and food that has already left billions hungry and malnourished. In order to understand the full, dire implications of what is happening today it is necessary to look at the interaction between these short-term and long-term crises. Both crises arise primarily from the for-profit production of food, fiber, and now biofuels, and the rift between food and people that this inevitably generates…… | more |

The Explosion of Debt and Speculation

In a series of articles in Monthly Review and in Monthly Review Press books during the 1970s and 1980s, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy proposed that the general economic tendency of mature capitalism is toward stagnation. A shortage of profitable investment opportunities is the primary cause of this tendency. Less investment in the productive economy (the “real economy”) means lower future growth. Marx wrote about the possibility of this very phenomenon… | more |

A Son’s Reflections

Harry died in the early hours of January 1, 2006, at our house in Burlington, Vermont, where he had lived for three and a half years. As he died, I laid on the big double bed facing him and held his arms, with my wife, his caregiver, and his good friends Gladys and Percy Brazil there too. Talking with them after he died I reflected on how it had been an honor to have Harry live with Amy and me since my mother Beadie had died and to help him get the most out of his final years. It was also fun and intellectually stimulating, although sometimes a challenge because of my health problems and our work schedules… | more |

Approaching Socialism

Among the arguments against socialism is that it goes against human nature. “You can’t change human nature” is the frequently heard refrain. That may be true of basic human instincts such as the urge to obtain food to eat, reproduce, seek shelter, make and wear protective clothing. However, what has usually been referred to as “human nature” has changed a great deal during the long history of humankind. As social systems changed, many habits and behavioral traits also changed as people adapted to new social structures. Anatomically modern humans emerged some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. Over the tens of thousands of years since, many different kinds of social organizations and societies have developed. Initially, most were based on hunting and gathering, while for about the last 7,000 years many have been based on agriculture. These societies were organized as clans, villages, tribes, city-states, nations, and/or empires… | more |