The current stage of capitalism is characterized by the increased power of finance capital. How to understand the economics of this shift and its political implications is now central for both the left and the larger society. There can be little doubt that a signature development of our time is the growth of finance and monopoly power.
The theme of the 2012 Left Forum, “Occupy the System—Confronting Global Capitalism,” calls for a historical imagination informed by a realistic sense of where we are. To occupy the system is first to be aware of the system as a system—a system of unequal privilege and control. It requires that we occupy the narrative of public debate, which is something the Occupy movement, to a remarkable degree, has been able to achieve. Even President Obama, who so far has followed the economic policies of his Wall Street-friendly advisers, has used campaign rhetoric taken from Occupy Wall Street. But this time around voters are hardly convinced that the “Change” Obama promised last election will happen through the existing system. The breath of fresh air from Occupy and related activism challenges corporate power and capitalism.
This essay examines aspects of the global political economy that I hope will inform progressive governments and movements for social change. It evaluates the constraints and opportunities presented in the current conjuncture of world capitalist development by analyzing four areas of crisis in the contemporary world capitalist system. These are not the only contradictory elements in the contemporary conjuncture, but they are, in my view, the most salient
The most important promises used to justify capitalism are that your children will have a better life than you do, and in President Kennedy’s famous words, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” meaning everyone benefits from the accumulation of capital. These promises ring hollow in a period in which the relative position of the working people of the United States is declining and its ruling class is able to appropriate an increasing share of the national income. This pattern of accumulation and appropriation has become evident to many Americans and this awareness is beginning to affect political consciousness
Imperialism is the system by which a dominant power is able to control the trade, investment, labor, and natural resources of other peoples. It takes different forms in different stages of capitalist development and has elements in common with the imperium of ancient empires. I want to lay out these structural elements, contrast them with the mainstream economists’ view of exchange regulated by free market principles, and then discuss the specific form imperialism takes in our own time. Any essay on this subject written from the left must acknowledge the influence of the writing of Harry Magdoff and on this occasion his influence is highlighted
The close relation between war and natural resources is of long standing. What else was colonial conquest about? Vast estates held by the Dutch East India Company came under direct control of the Crown as did the lands conquered by the British East India Company. What was in demand in Europe dictated the commodities produced and the natural resources that were ripped from the earth. European violence set the terms on which resource extraction occurred. There was no free trade for mutual benefit based on comparative advantage. There were few constraints on the violence employed in the extraction of resources starting with the “shock and awe” of bombardments and fire storms of wars of conquest and followed by the pitiless subjugation of people of color. Having defeated the locals in battle the invaders suborned local elites and customs to extract resources from those they had conquered
Harry Magdoff died on New Year’s Day 2006 at the age of ninety-two. He will be remembered in the hearts of those who knew him, those who were profoundly influenced when they heard him speak, and those who have read Monthly Review and his great books on imperialism, which helped mature the thinking of the generation of leftists who came of age during the Vietnam War. It is the warmth of his person, the clarity and incisiveness of his thinking, and his profound vision of the absolute necessity of socialism that characterize his historic contributions and set him apart as one of a handful of great Marxist thinkers of the last century. The breadth of Harry’s knowledge—his grasp of world history, Marxist literature, and broader literatures—was extraordinary. He was as content, for example, to discuss the nature of calculus with a college student as Shakespeare with a Shakespeare scholar, all with that wonderful enthusiasm and energy he always brought to conversations
Two trends dominate today’s world political economy. The first is growing inequality. The second is slower economic growth. Both trends have important consequences, which flow from the increased power of capital in a globalized world. The hegemony of the capitalist class is not new, but in any specific conjuncture, how its power is exercised depends on how technological possibilities are deployed, the degree of ideological clarity of the working class (broadly conceptualized), and the political activity of factions of the ruling class itself. In looking at the power of the rich in the United States, I will discuss not so much structural power but contingent developments of George W. Bush’s presidency
The questions regarding U.S. macroeconomic policy these days come down to whether the country can keep borrowing. Can consumers keep spending by increasing their debt level? Can the federal government keep running a large budget deficit without serious problems developing? Can the U.S. current account deficit keep growing? Will foreigners keep buying government bonds to cover this growing debt? If the answer is no to such questions, we can expect serious trouble and not just for the United States but for the rest of the world, which has grown used to the United States as the consumer of last resort. The United States buys 50 percent more than it sells overseas, enough to sink any other economy. In another economy, such a deficit would lead to a severe devaluation of the currency, sharply inflating the price of imports and forcing the monetary authorities to push interest rates up considerably
What is today viewed as globalization is not in fact a new phenomenon as the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois attests. Dr. Du Bois understood the impacts of what today we call neoliberalism, its damages, its causes, the interests it serves, and the way it divides the working class and undercuts the progressive movements with horrible consequences at home and abroad. These remain our themes today, though we would add “and women” in brackets where Dr. Du Bois wrote only “men,” and we would include ethnicity and religion as part of the discussion of the color line