The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy was initially written thirty years ago this coming year as my doctoral dissertation at York University in Toronto. It was expanded into a larger book form with three additional chapters (on the state, imperialism, and socialist construction) and published by Monthly Review Press two years later. The analysis of both the dissertation and the book focused primarily on the work of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, and particularly on the debate that had grown up around their book, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (1966). In this respect The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism was specifically designed, as its subtitle indicated, as an “elaboration” of their underlying theoretical perspective and its wider implications.… Three decades later much has changed, in ways that make the reissuing of The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism in a new edition seem useful and timely. The scholarly research into Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital has expanded enormously in the intervening years, most notably with the publication of the two missing chapters of Monopoly Capital—one on the theoretical implications of their analysis for economics, the other on culture and communications—and through research into their joint correspondence. The Great Financial Crisis and the resurfacing of economic stagnation have engendered new interest in this tradition of thought. Under this historical impetus the theory itself has advanced to address new developments, particularly with respect to the understanding of stagnation, financialization, and the globalization of monopoly capital.
A historical perspective on the economic stagnation afflicting the United States and the other advanced capitalist economies requires that we go back to the severe downturn of 1974–1975, which marked the end of the post-Second World War prosperity. The dominant interpretation of the mid–1970s recession was that the full employment of the earlier Keynesian era had laid the basis for the crisis by strengthening labor in relation to capital. As a number of prominent left economists, whose outlook did not differ from the mainstream in this respect, put it, the problem was a capitalist class that was “too weak” and a working class that was “too strong.” Empirically, the slump was commonly attributed to a rise in the wage share of income, squeezing profits. This has come to be known as the “profit-squeeze” theory of crisis.
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?
The world at present is fast approaching a climate cliff. Science tells us that an increase in global average temperature of 2°C (3.6° F) constitutes the planetary tipping point with respect to climate change, leading to irreversible changes beyond human control. A 2°C rise is sufficient to melt a significant portion of the world’s ice due to feedbacks that will hasten the melting. It will thus set the course to an ice-free world. Sea level will rise. Numerous islands will be threatened along with coastal regions throughout the globe. Extreme weather events (droughts, storms, floods) will be far more common. The paleoclimatic record shows that an increase in global average temperature of several degrees means that 50 percent or more of all species—plants and animals—will be driven to extinction. Global food crops will be negatively affected.
I would like to thank Zhihe Wang, Meijun Fan, Hui Dong, Dezhong Sun, and Lichun Li for doing so much to promote a global dialogue on ecological Marxism by summarizing some of the insights and concerns of Chinese scholars in this area, focusing in this case on my work in particular. The various questions, challenges, and critiques raised in relation to my work and that of related scholars are all, I believe, of great importance to the development of theory and practice in this area. I am therefore providing a brief set of responses to the problems raised, which I hope will be helpful in the further promotion of this global dialogue on ecology and Marxism.
Capitalism today is caught in a seemingly endless crisis, with economic stagnation and upheaval circling the globe. But while the world has been fixated on the economic problem, global environmental conditions have been rapidly worsening, confronting humanity with its ultimate crisis: one of long-term survival. The common source of both of these crises resides in the process of capital accumulation. Likewise the common solution is to be sought in a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large,” going beyond the regime of capital.… It is still possible for humanity to avert what economist Robert Heilbroner once called “ecological Armageddon.” The means for the creation of a just and sustainable world currently exist, and are to be found lying hidden in the growing gap between what could be achieved with the resources already available to us, and what the prevailing social order allows us to accomplish. It is this latent potential for a quite different human metabolism with nature that offers the master-key to a workable ecological exit strategy.
Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order by Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, published in 1966, is one of the foundational works in the development of Marxian political economy in the United States and indeed the world, and is today recognized as a classic, having generated more than four-and-a-half decades of research and debate. The completion of the book, however, was deeply affected by Baran’s death, on March 26, 1964, two years before the final manuscript was prepared. Although all of the chapters were drafted in at least rough form and had been discussed a number of times the authors had not mutually worked out to their complete satisfaction certain crucial problems. Consequently, two chapters were left out of the final work.… What happened to these two missing chapters—”Some Implications for Economic Theory” and presumably “On the Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society—II”—remained for many years a mystery.
Marxism and feminism are usually seen as divorced from each other today, following the breakup of what Heidi Hartmann famously called their “unhappy marriage.” Yet, some theorists still show the influence of both. In my view, Joan Acker is both one of the leading analysts of gender and class associated with the second wave of feminism, and one of the great contributors to what has been called “feminist historical materialism.” In the latter respect, I would place her next to such important proponents of feminist standpoint theory as Nancy Hartsock, Dorothy Smith, and Sandra Harding. These thinkers, as Fredric Jameson has rightly said, represent the “most authentic” heirs of Lukács’s critical Marxist view articulating the proletarian standpoint—giving this dialectical insight added meaning by applying it to gender relations.
The Great Financial Crisis and the Great Recession began in the United States in 2007 and quickly spread across the globe, marking what appears to be a turning point in world history. Although this was followed within two years by a recovery phase, the world economy five years after the onset of the crisis is still in the doldrums…. The one bright spot in the world economy, from a growth standpoint, has been the seemingly unstoppable expansion of a handful of emerging economies, particularly China. Yet, the continuing stability of China is now also in question. Hence, the general consensus among informed economic observers is that the world capitalist economy is facing the threat of long-run economic stagnation (complicated by the prospect of further financial deleveraging)…. It is this issue of the stagnation of the capitalist economy, even more than that of financial crisis or recession that has now emerged as the big question worldwide.
Five years after the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–09 began there is still no sign of a full recovery of the world economy. Consequently, concern has increasingly shifted from financial crisis and recession to slow growth or stagnation, causing some to dub the current era the Great Stagnation. Stagnation and financial crisis are now seen as feeding into one another.… To be sure, a few emerging economies have seemingly bucked the general trend, continuing to grow rapidly—most notably China, now the world’s second largest economy after the United States. Yet, as [IMF Managing Director Christine] Lagarde warned her Chinese listeners, “Asia is not immune” to the general economic slowdown, “emerging Asia is also vulnerable to developments in the financial sector.” So sharp were the IMF’s warnings, dovetailing with widespread fears of a sharp Chinese economic slowdown, that Lagarde in late November was forced to reassure world business, declaring that stagnation was probably not imminent in China (the Bloomberg.com headline ran: “IMF Sees Chinese Economy Avoiding Stagnation.”)
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.
Over the next few decades we are facing the possibility, indeed the probability, of global catastrophe on a level unprecedented in human history. The message of science is clear. As James Hansen, the foremost climate scientist in the United States, has warned, this may be “our last chance to save humanity.” In order to understand the full nature of this threat and how it needs to be addressed, it is essential to get a historical perspective on how we got where we are, and how this is related to the current socioeconomic system, namely capitalism.
In the last few decades there has been an enormous shift in the capitalist economy in the direction of the globalization of production. Much of the increase in manufacturing and even services production that would have formerly taken place in the global North—as well as a portion of the North’s preexisting production—is now being offshored to the global South, where it is feeding the rapid industrialization of a handful of emerging economies. It is customary to see this shift as arising from the economic crisis of 1974–75 and the rise of neoliberalism—or as erupting in the 1980s and after, with the huge increase in the global capitalist labor force resulting from the integration of Eastern Europe and China into the world economy. Yet, the foundations of production on a global scale, we will argue, were laid in the 1950s and 1960s, and were already depicted in the work of Stephen Hymer, the foremost theorist of the multinational corporation, who died in 1974.
Samir Amin was born in Cairo in 1931, and studied within the French educational system in Egypt.… He is currently president of the World Forum for Alternatives.… Amin’s wide-ranging work can be most succinctly described in terms of the dual designation of The Law of Value and Historical Materialism—the title of one of his books, now in a new edition as The Law of Worldwide Value. Marx’s intellectual corpus, he notes, appears to be divided into writings on economics and writings on politics.… For Amin, this basic division of Marxist theory is not to be denied. Nevertheless, he insists that the economic laws of capitalism, summed up by the law of value, “are subordinate to the laws of historical materialism.” Economic science, while indispensable, cannot explain at the highest level of abstraction, as in mathematical equations, the full reality of capitalism and imperialism—since it cannot account either for the historical origins of the system itself, or for the nature of the class struggle.
It is no secret today that we are facing a planetary environmental emergency, endangering most species on the planet, including our own, and that this impending catastrophe has its roots in the capitalist economic system. Nevertheless, the extreme dangers that capitalism inherently poses to the environment are often inadequately understood, giving rise to the belief that it is possible to create a new “natural capitalism” or “climate capitalism” in which the system is turned from being the enemy of the environment into its savior. The chief problem with all such views is that they underestimate the cumulative threat to humanity and the earth arising from the existing relations of production. Indeed, the full enormity of the planetary ecological crisis, I shall contend, can only be understood from a standpoint informed by the Marxian critique of capitalism.