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Capitalism, the Absurd System: A View from the United States

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.

Listen Keynesians, It’s the System! Response to Palley

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.”

Monopoly-Finance Capital and the Paradox of Accumulation

This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ironically, this comes at the very moment that the capitalist system is celebrating having narrowly escaped falling into a similar abyss. The financial crash and the decline in output a year ago, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, was as steep as at the beginning of the Great Depression. “For a while,” Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in August, “key economic indicators — world trade, world industrial production, even stock prices—were falling as fast or faster than they did in 1929-30. But in the 1930s the trend lines kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year.” Big government, through the federal bailout and stimulus, as well as the shock-absorber effects of the continued payouts of unemployment and Social Security benefits, Medicare, etc., slowed the descent and helped the economy to level off, albeit at a point well below previous output.

The Penal State in an Age of Crisis

As a rule, crime and social protest rise in periods of economic crisis in capitalist society. During times of economic and social instability, the well-to-do become increasingly fearful of the general population, more disposed to adopt harsh measures to safeguard their positions at the apex of the social pyramid. The slowdown in the economic growth rate of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—converging with the emergence of radical social protest around the same period—was accompanied by a rapid rise in public safety spending as a share of civilian government expenditures. So significant was this shift that we can speak of a crowding out of welfare state spending (health, education, social services) by penal state spending (law enforcement, courts, and prisons) in the United States during the last third of a century.

The Sales Effort and Monopoly Capital

On the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that led to the Great Depression, the United States is once again caught in a Great Financial Crisis and deep downturn of an order of magnitude comparable to the 1930s. At the center of this crisis is plunging consumer spending, caused by the destruction of household finance as a result of decades of wage stagnation and the piling up of debt. Consumer spending in today’s economy, dominated by giant firms, is significantly dependent on the sales effort, i.e., marketing as a whole, with advertising as its most conspicuous form. But the sales effort is also ebbing in the crisis, contributing to the general decline. So integral is the sales effort to the regime of monopoly capital that one cannot be understood without the other.

A New New Deal under Obama?

With U.S. capitalism mired in an economic crisis of a severity that increasingly brings to mind the Great Depression of the 1930s, it should come as no surprise that there are widespread calls for “a new New Deal.” Already the new Obama administration has been pointing to a vast economic stimulus program of up to $850 billion over two years aimed at lifting the nation out of the deep economic slump.

The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending

The United States is unique today among major states in the degree of its reliance on military spending, and its determination to stand astride the world, militarily as well as economically. No other country in the post–Second World War world has been so globally destructive or inflicted so many war fatalities. Since 2001, acknowledged U.S. national defense spending has increased by almost 60 percent in real dollar terms to a level in 2007 of $553 billion. This is higher than at any point since the Second World War (though lower than previous decades as a percentage of GDP). Based on such official figures, the United States is reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as accounting for 45 percent of world military expenditures. Yet, so gargantuan and labyrinthine are U.S. military expenditures that the above grossly understates their true magnitude, which, as we shall see below, reached $1 trillion in 2007.

The U.S. Media Reform Movement: Going Forward

All social scholarship ultimately is about understanding the world to change it, even if the change we want is to preserve that which we most treasure in the status quo. This is especially and immediately true for political economy of media as a field of study, where research has a direct and important relationship with policies and structures that shape media and communication and influence the course of society. Because of this, too, the political economy of communication has had a direct relationship with policy makers and citizens outside the academy. The work, more than most other areas, cannot survive if it is “academic.” That is why the burgeoning media reform movement in the United States is so important for the field. This is a movement, astonishingly, based almost directly upon core political economic research

The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China

The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China

The days of boom and bubble are over, and the time has come to understand the long-term economic reality. Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, hopes for a new phase of rapid economic expansion were quickly dashed. Instead, growth has been slow, unemployment has remained high, wages and benefits have seen little improvement, poverty has increased, and the trend toward more inequality of incomes and wealth has continued. It appears that the Great Recession has given way to a period of long-term anemic growth, which Foster and McChesney aptly term the Great Stagnation. This incisive and timely book traces the origins of economic stagnation and explains what it means for a clear understanding of our current situation.

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

In early 2011, the nation was stunned to watch Wisconsin’s state capitol in Madison came under sudden and unexpected occupation by union members and their allies. The protests to defend collective bargaining rights were militant and practically unheard of in this era of declining union power. This timely book brings together some of the best labor journalists and scholars in the United States, many of whom were on the ground at the time, to examine the causes and impact of events, and suggest how the labor movement might proceed.

The American Empire: Pax Americana or Pox Americana?

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he declared that the peace that the United States sought was “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” His remarks were a response to criticisms of the United States advanced in a recently published Soviet text on military strategy. Kennedy dismissed the charge that “American imperialist circles” were “preparing to unleash different kinds of wars” including “preventative war.” The Soviet text, he pointed out, had stated, “The political aims of American imperialists were and still are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries and, after the latter are transformed into obedient tools, to unify them in various military-political blocs and groups directed against the socialist countries. The main aim of all this is to achieve world domination.” In Kennedy’s words, these were “wholly baseless and incredible claims,” the work of Marxist “propagandists.” “The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.”

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

More than any other work, The Political Economy of Media demonstrates the incompatibility of the corporate media system with a viable democratic public sphere, and the corrupt policymaking process that brings the system into existence. Among the most acclaimed communication scholars in the world, Robert W. McChesney has brought together all the major themes of his two decades of research. Rich in detail, evidence, and thoughtful arguments, The Political Economy of Media provides a comprehensive critique of the degradation of journalism, the hyper-commercialization of culture, the Internet, and the emergence of the contemporary media reform movement. The Political Economy of Media is mandatory reading for anyone wishing to understand and change media, and the political economy, in the world today.

The Escalating War Against Corporate Media

A recurring issue for the left historically has been how to address the capitalist media. In recent years the problem has grown ever more severe, and no small amount of attention has been given to examining the problems of the commercial media and how closely they reinforce and accentuate problems within the broader social order. The logic of this criticism has become clear: progressives need to work on challenging the corporate domination of media as part of the broader struggle for social justice. If changing media is left until “after the revolution,” there will be no revolution, not to mention fewer chances for social reform. But politicizing control over media has proven to be extraordinarily difficult for activists. That is why the massive and largely unanticipated 2003 campaign in the United States to stop further media concentration, which almost overnight reached a scale not seen in media reform struggles since the 1930s, is so important and instructive. This article chronicles that revolt

Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.s. Imperialism

We are living in a period in which the rhetoric of empire knows few bounds. In a special report on “America and Empire” in August, the London-based Economist magazine asked whether the United States would, in the event of “regime changes … effected peacefully” in Iran and Syria, “really be prepared to shoulder the white man’s burden across the Middle East?” The answer it gave was that this was “unlikely”—the U.S. commitment to empire did not go so far. What is significant, however, is that the question was asked at all.

The ‘Left-Wing’ Media?

If we learn nothing else from the war on Iraq and its subsequent occupation, it is that the U.S. ruling class has learned to make ideological warfare as important to its operations as military and economic warfare. A crucial component of this ideological war has been the campaign against “left-wing media bias,” with the objective of reducing or eliminating the prospect that mainstream U.S. journalism might be at all critical toward elite interests or the system set up to serve those interests. In 2001 and 2002, no less than three books purporting to demonstrate the media’s leftward tilt rested high atop the bestseller list. Such charges have already influenced media content, pushing journalists to be less critical of right-wing politics. The result has been to reinforce the corporate and rightist bias already built into the media system.