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Beyond the Degradation of Labor

Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class

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.

Surveillance Capitalism

Monopoly-Finance Capital, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Digital Age

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.

Stagnation and Financialization

The Nature of the Contradiction

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.

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.

Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature

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.

The Epochal Crisis

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.

The Fossil Fuels War

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 Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital

An Introduction

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]

Introduction to the Second Edition of The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism

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.

Marx, Kalecki, and Socialist Strategy

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.

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