It is now a universal belief on the left that the world has entered a new imperialist phase.… The challenge for Marxian theories of the imperialist world system in our times is to capture the full depth and breadth of the classical accounts, while also addressing the historical specificity of the current global economy. It will be argued in this introduction (in line with the present issue as a whole) that what is widely referred to as neoliberal globalization in the twenty-first century is in fact a historical product of the shift to global monopoly-finance capital or what Samir Amin calls the imperialism of “generalized-monopoly capitalism.”
Soviet ecology presents us with an extraordinary set of historical ironies. On the one hand, the USSR in the 1930s and ’40s violently purged many of its leading ecological thinkers and seriously degraded its environment in the quest for rapid industrial expansion. The end result has often been described as a kind of “ecocide,” symbolized by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the assault on Lake Baikal, and the drying up of the Aral Sea, as well as extremely high levels of air and water pollution. On the other hand, the Soviet Union developed some of the world’s most dialectical contributions to ecology, revolutionizing science in fields such as climatology, while also introducing pioneering forms of conservation. Aside from its famous zapovedniki, or nature reserves for scientific research, it sought to preserve and even to expand its forests.
On October 20, 2012, less than two weeks after being reelected to his fourth term as Venezuelan president and only months before his death, Hugo Chávez delivered his crucial El Golpe de Timón (“Strike at the Helm”) speech to the first meeting of his ministers in the new revolutionary cycle. Chávez surprised even some of his strongest supporters by his insistence on the need for changes at the top in order to promote an immediate leap forward in the creation of what is referred to as “the communal state.” This was to accelerate the shift of power to the population that had begun with the formation of the communal councils (groupings of families involved in self-governance projects—in densely populated urban areas, 200–400 families; in rural areas, 50–100 families). The main aim in the new revolutionary cycle, he insisted, was to speed up the registration of communes, the key structure of the communal state.
Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything [argues that the source of the looming crisis from climate change] is not the planet, which operates according to natural laws, but rather the economic and social system in which we live, which treats natural limits as mere barriers to surmount. It is now doing so on a planetary scale, destroying in the process the earth as a place of human habitation.… In the age of climate change, Klein argues, a system based on ever-expanding capital accumulation and exponential economic growth is no longer compatible with human well-being and progress—or even with human survival over the long run.… In this way Klein…signals that she has now, in William Morris’s famous metaphor, crossed “the river of fire” to become a critic of capital as a system.… [This] has led to a host of liberal attacks on This Changes Everything, often couched as criticisms emanating from the left. These establishment criticisms of her work, we will demonstrate, are disingenuous, having little to do with serious confrontation with her analysis. Rather, their primary purpose is to rein in her ideas, bringing them into conformity with received opinion. If that should prove impossible, the next step is to exclude her ideas from the conversation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The United States came out of the Second World War as the hegemonic power in the world economy. The war had lifted the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression by providing the needed effective demand in the form of endless orders for armaments and troops. Real output rose by 65 percent between 1940 and 1944, and industrial production jumped by 90 percent. At the immediate end of the war, due to the destruction of the European and Japanese economies, the United States accounted for over 60 percent of world manufacturing output. The very palpable fear at the top of society as the war came to a close was that of a reversion to the pre-war situation in which domestic demand would be insufficient to absorb the enormous and growing potential economic surplus generated by the production system, thereby leading to a renewed condition of economic stagnation and depression.… Postwar planners in industry and government moved quickly to stabilize the system through the massive promotion of a sales effort in the form of a corporate marketing revolution based in Madison Avenue, and through the creation of a permanent warfare state, dedicated to the imperial control of world markets and to fighting the Cold War, with its headquarters in the Pentagon. The sales effort and the military-industrial complex constituted the two main surplus-absorption mechanisms (beyond capitalist consumption and investment) in the U.S. economy in the first quarter-century after the Second World War.
More than six years after the beginning of the Great Recession in the United States, and nearly five years since it was officially declared over in this country, the core economies of the capitalist world system remain crisis-ridden. The jobs lost in the downturn in the United States have not yet been fully recovered and the economy remains sluggish. In Europe the crisis has hardly abated at all and a number of the peripheral European Union countries are in what can only be called a depression—especially Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The last member of the triad of advanced capitalist centers, Japan, has gone through what have been called two “lost decades” of slow growth and deflation and is attempting once again to jump-start the economy through a combination of devaluation of the yen and deficit spending.
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.
The rediscovery over the last decade and a half of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift has come to be seen by many on the left as offering a powerful critique of the relation between nature and contemporary capitalist society. The result has been the development of a more unified ecological world view transcending the divisions between natural and social science, and allowing us to perceive the concrete ways in which the contradictions of capital accumulation are generating ecological crises and catastrophes.… Yet, this recovery of Marx’s ecological argument has given rise to further questions and criticisms.
It is an indication of the sheer enormity of the historical challenge confronting humanity in our time that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, sometimes now called the Second Great Depression, is overshadowed by the larger threat of planetary catastrophe, raising the question of the long-term survival of innumerable species—including our own. An urgent necessity for the world today is therefore to develop an understanding of the interconnections between the deepening impasse of the capitalist economy and the rapidly accelerating ecological threat—itself a by-product of capitalist development.
Only a few years ago governments, corporations, and energy analysts were fixated on the problem of “the end of cheap oil” or “peak oil,” pointing to growing shortages of conventional crude oil due to the depletion of known reserves. The International Energy Agency’s 2010 report devoted a whole section to peak oil. Some climate scientists saw the peaking of conventional crude oil as a silver-lining opportunity to stabilize the climate—provided that countries did not turn to dirtier forms of energy such as coal and “unconventional fossil fuels.”… Today all of this has changed radically with the advent of what some are calling a new energy revolution based on the production of unconventional fossil fuels. The emergence in North America—but increasingly elsewhere as well—of what is now termed the “Unconventionals Era” has meant that suddenly the world is awash in new and prospective fossil-fuel supplies.
The past half-century has been dominated by the rise of media to a commanding position in the social life of most people and nations, to the point where it is banal to regard this as the “information age.” The once-dazzling ascension of television in the 1950s and ’60s now looks like the horse-and-buggy era when one assesses the Internet, smartphones, and the digital revolution. For social theorists of all stripes communication has moved to center stage. And for those on the left, addressing the role of communication in achieving social change and then maintaining popular rule in the face of reactionary backlash is now a primary concern.… political economists of communication, including one of us, identified themselves as in the tradition of radical political economy, but with a sophisticated appreciation of media that had escaped.… [the stellar critique of journalism produced… by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky]. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were occasionally held up by political economists of communication as representing the sort of traditional Marxists who underappreciated the importance of media, communication, and culture.… We were never especially impressed by this criticism. To us, Monopoly Capital, and the broader political economy of Baran and Sweezy, far from ignoring communication, provided key elements for a serious study of the subject. [Note: this article was released in three parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]