In 1997, in his last published article, Paul Sweezy referred to “the financialization of the capital accumulation process” as one of the three main economic tendencies at the turn of the century (the other two were the growth of monopoly power and stagnation). Those familiar with economic theory will realize that the phrase was meant to be paradoxical. All traditions of economics, to varying degrees, have sought to separate out analytically the role of finance from the “real economy.” Accumulation is conceived as real capital formation, which increases overall economic output, as opposed to the appreciation of financial assets, which increases wealth claims but not output. In highlighting the financialization of accumulation, Sweezy was therefore pointing to what can be regarded as “the enigma of capital” in our time
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
In the eyes of much of the world, the year 1989 has come to stand for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Soviet-type societies, and the defeat of twentieth-century socialism. However, 1989 for many others, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries, is also associated with the beginning of the Latin American revolt against neoliberal shock therapy and the emergence in the years that followed of a “socialism for the 21st century.” This revolutionary turning point in Latin American (and world) history is known as the Caracazo or Sacudón (heavy riot), which erupted in Caracas, Venezuela on February 27, 1989, and quickly became “by far the most massive and severely repressed riot in the history of Latin America.”
Perhaps nothing points so clearly to the alienated nature of politics in the present day United States as the fact that capitalism, the economic system that drives the society, is effectively off-limits to critical review or discussion. To the extent that capitalism is mentioned by politicians or pundits, it is regarded in hushed tones of reverence for the genius of the market, its unquestioned efficiency, and its providential authority. One might quibble with a corrupt and greedy CEO or a regrettable loss of jobs, but the superiority and necessity of capitalism—or, more likely, its euphemism, the so-called “free market system”—is simply beyond debate or even consideration. There are, of course, those who believe that the system needs more regulation and that there is room for all sorts of fine-tuning. Nevertheless, there is no questioning of the basics.
Has the power of financial interests in U.S. society increased? Has Wall Street’s growing clout affected the U.S. state itself? How is this connected to the present crisis? We will argue that the financialization of U.S. capitalism over the last four decades has been accompanied by a dramatic and probably long-lasting shift in the location of the capitalist class, a growing proportion of which now derives its wealth from finance as opposed to production. This growing dominance of finance can be seen today in the inner corridors of state power.
In an article entitled “Listen, Keynesians!,” published in January 1983 in Monthly Review, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy argued that the radical break that John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) represented for orthodox economics lay in the fact that “For the first time the possibility was frankly faced, indeed placed at the very center of the analysis, that breakdowns of the accumulation process, the heart and soul of economic growth, might be built into the system and non-self correcting.”… In November 1982, only two months before the publication of “Listen, Keynesians!,” Magdoff and Sweezy had pointed out in “Financial Instability: Where Will it All End?” that the question as to whether a major financial crisis (on the scale of 1929) could propel the economy into a deep downturn, approaching the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s, was still an open one. They were responding here to Hyman Minsky, a proud Keynesian (albeit with socialist leanings), “whose views,” they claimed, were “especially worthy of attention precisely because over the years he has been the American economist who has done more than any other to focus on the crucially important destabilizing role of the financial system in advanced capitalist countries.”
John Bellamy Foster is a leading exponent of the theoretical perspective that continues in the tradition of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. This new edition of his essential work, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism, is a clear and accessible explication of this outlook, brought up to the present, and incorporating an analysis of recently discovered “lost” chapters from Monopoly Capital and correspondence between Baran and Sweezy. It also discusses Magdoff and Sweezy’s analysis of the financialization of the economy in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, leading up to the Great Financial Crisis of the opening decade of this century.
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.”
Three years ago, in December 2006, I wrote an article for Monthly Review entitled “Monopoly-Finance Capital.” The occasion was the anniversary of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published four decades earlier in 1966.…The article…[discussed] “the dual reality” of stagnant growth (or stagnation) and financialization, characterizing the advanced economies in this phase of capitalism. I concluded that this pointed to two possibilities: (1) a major financial and economic crisis in the form of “global debt meltdown and debt-deflation,” and (2) a prolongation of the symbiotic stagnation-financialization relationship of monopoly-finance capital. In fact, what we have experienced in the last two years, I would argue, is each of these sequentially: the worst financial-economic crisis since the 1930s, and then the system endeavoring to right itself by returning to financialization as its normal means of countering stagnation. It is thus doubly clear today that we are in a new phase of capitalism. In what follows, I shall attempt to outline the logic of this argument, as it evolved out of the work of Baran, Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff in particular, and how it relates to our present economic and social predicament.
If I were asked to sum up the significance of István Mészáros for our time, I would have to follow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in referring to him as the “Pathfinder of Socialism.” His work…provides a strategic vision of the building of socialism, the absence of which, for many decades, constituted one of the principal weaknesses of the anti-capitalist movement, worldwide.