Friday April 18th, 2014, 9:12 am (EDT)


Political Economy

Why Stagnation?

The question “Why Stagnation?” has a rather special significance for me. I started my graduate work in economics exactly fifty years ago this year. The cyclical downturn which began in 1929 was nearing the bottom. Unemployment in that year, according to government figures, was 23.6 percent of the labor force, and it reached its high point in 1933 at 24.9 percent. It remained in the double-digit range throughout the decade. Still, a recovery began in 1933, and it turned out to be the longest on record up to that time. Even at the top in 1937, however, the unemployment rate was still 14.3 percent, and it jumped up by the end of the year. That also happens to be the year I got my Ph.D. Can you imagine a set of circumstances better calculated to impress upon a young economist the idea that the fundamental economic problem was not cyclical ups and downs but secular stagnation? … | more |

Monopoly Capitalism

Among Marxian economists “monopoly capitalism” is the term widely used to denote the stage of capitalism which dates from approximately the last quarter of the nineteenth century and reaches full maturity in the period after the Second World War. Marx’s Capital, like classical political economy from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, was based on the assumption that all commodities are produced by industries consisting of many firms, or capitals in Marx’s terminology, each accounting for a negligible fraction of total output and all responding to the price and profit signals generated by impersonal market forces. Unlike the classical economists, however, Marx recognized that such an economy was inherently unstable and impermanent. The way to succeed in a competitive market is to cut costs and expand production, a process which requires incessant accumulation of capital in ever new technological and organizational forms. In Marx’s words: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.” Further, the credit system which “begins as a modest helper of accumulation” soon “becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competition in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals” (Marx, 1894, ch. 27)… | more |

Capitalism and the Environment

It is obvious that humankind has arrived at a crucial turning point in its long history. Nuclear war could terminate the whole human enterprise. But even if this catastrophic ending can be avoided, it is by no means certain that the essential conditions for the survival and development of civilized society as we know it today will continue to exist… | more |

Argentina: Program for a Popular Economic Recovery

Two and a half years after its spectacular crash, Argentina seems to be entering a new political and economic phase. President Néstor Kirchner, elected in May 2003, has claimed that “the period of neoliberalism is over” and economic activity has recovered faster than generally anticipated. Payments are being made on a part of the debt held by favored creditors (above all the IMF), and international pressure to refinance and make payments on the defaulted debt has increased. Neoliberal economists remain totally discredited, but the Kirchner regime’s policy of partial payments on the debt, financed by revenues generated by severe restrictions on public spending, is applauded by a coterie of supposed “Keynesian” and “national” economists.… Questions remain: What happened to the external debt disaster? Is the enormous social crisis, for a moment extensively covered by the press and media, over? And even: Is Argentina, a neoliberal model in the 1990s of an “open, deregulated and privatized economy” now inaugurating a reverse miracle of a new type (perhaps to be termed Keynesian), a “national capitalism with a human face”?… | more |

What Keeps Capitalism Going?

I want to address a very simple question: What keeps capitalism going? or, in the somewhat more technical language of Marxists, How does capitalism as a system reproduce itself?… | more |

Inequalities Are Unhealthy

The growing inequalities we are witnessing in the world today are having a very negative impact on the health and quality of life of its populations. It is true, as many conservatives and neoliberal authors continue to stress, that health indicators are improving in many parts of the world, including in many underdeveloped countries. But what these authors are not saying is that the rate of improvements in these indicators have slowed down in most countries that have experienced a growth of inequalities, and in many of them, including the United States, these indicators have even reversed. According to the last report of the National Center for Health and Vital Statistics, infant mortality in the United Staes has increased, reversing the decline that had occurred since 1953.1 The growth of inequalities is thus bad for people’s health. But why? … | more |

Ideology and Economic Development

Economic theory is not neutral, and the results when it is applied owe much to the implicit and explicit assumptions embedded in a particular theory. That such assumptions reflect specific ideologies is most obvious in the case of the neoclassical economics that underlies neoliberal economic policies… | more |

The Stagnation of Employment

Except in times of war, capitalist economies almost never reach full employment. The mere absence of jobs for those desiring paid employment, however, is not necessarily a problem for the ruling economic interests. Unemployment and the underutilization of labor more generally—the existence of what Marx called the industrial reserve army of labor—is a necessary part of a capitalist economy, since it keeps wages low as workers are forced to compete with each other for jobs. This becomes a serious problem for the system or for the political structure when the shortfall in employment coincides with a deeper structural crisis; when aggregate demand and thus investment opportunities are hindered by low employment and low wages; and when a shortage of jobs creates a political problem, sometimes even igniting popular opposition at the grassroots of society. All three of these contradictions are apparent in 2004, setting the stage for a national debate on the question of jobs, which more than three years since the beginning of the 2001 recession is now suddenly a front page story… | more |

Disposable Workers: Today’s Reserve Army of Labor

These are difficult times for workers. In the wealthy countries of capitalism’s center, labor is struggling to maintain existing wages and benefits against a combined assault by corporations and governments, while conditions of workers in the periphery are even more difficult. The widespread acceptance and adoption of capital’s agenda—”free trade,” “free markets,” greater “flexibility” regarding labor, and reduced social welfare assistance—has led to one group of real winners. Transnational corporations (and their owners and top managers) now have more freedom to produce where labor and other costs are cheap, have their patents protected, and move capital in and out of countries at will. Many workers, unfortunately, are finding that their situation has become more tenuous.… | more |

New Economy R.I.P.

Doug Henwood, After the New Economy (New York: The New Press, 2003), 269 pages, hardcover $24.95.

In the late nineties, the San Francisco Bay Area was caught up in the mania of the high-tech, information-based “New Economy.” Venture capitalists threw money at e-commerce start-ups based on dicey premises, while loss-making companies raked in millions at their initial public offerings. In low income areas like the Mission District, dot-coms moved in, forcing out poor people whose only recourse was to organize themselves in anti-displacement coalitions and hope for the market to crash. In the fray, even a new type of gold digger emerged: women in search of nerdly adolescent millionaires with fat stock options. It was a stupefying time… | more |

NAFTA’s Knife: Class Warfare Across the U.S.-Mexico Border

David Bacon, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 348 pages, cloth $27.50.

I once heard a discussion about the first sentences of books and those sentences that were among the most famous and most powerful. The opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was among the most popular. David Bacon’s first sentence in chapter one of his book must now rank among the most gripping: “NAFTA repeatedly plunged a knife into José Castillo’s heart.” … | more |

A Precarious Existence: The Fate of Billions?

The number of people living a precarious existence has been increasing in many countries of the world, with hunger all too widespread. There are approximately 6 billion people in the world, with about half living in cities and half in rural areas. Between the poor living in cities and those in rural areas, a vast number of the world’s people live under very harsh conditions. It is estimated that that about half of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars per day, with most of those either chronically malnourished or continually concerned with where their next meal will come from. Many have no access to clean water (1 billion), electricity (2 billion), or sanitation (2.5 billion)… | more |

Poverty and Inequality in the Global Economy

Capitalism is hundreds of years old and today dominates nearly every part of the globe. Its champions claim that it is the greatest engine of production growth the world has ever seen. They also argue that it is unique in its ability to raise the standard of living of every person on earth. Because of capitalism, we are all “slouching toward utopia,”—the phrase coined by University of California at Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong—slowly but surely heading toward a world in which everyone will have achieved a U.S.-style middle-class life… | more |

Cuba: The Next Forty-Five Years?

This year Cuba will be celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of its victorious revolution: a great historic achievement. And when we bear in mind that the Cuban revolution—the long sustained action of a nation of just eleven million people—survived for forty-five years against all odds, successfully confronting the declared enmity, the U.S.-dictated international political encirclement and economic blockade, as well as the ever renewed attempts to subvert and overthrow the post-revolutionary order by the world’s most preponderant economic and military power, even this simple fact puts forcefully into relief the magnitude and the lasting significance of the ongoing Cuban intervention in the historical process of our time. We are all contemporaries to an achievement whose reverberations reach well beyond the confines of the tendentiously propagandized “American Hemisphere,” offering its hopeful message to the rest of the world… | more |

After Neoliberalism: Empire, Social Democracy, or Socialism?

Since the early 1980s, the leading capitalist states in North America and Western Europe have pursued neoliberal policies and institutional changes. The peripheral and semiperipheral states in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, under the pressure of the leading capitalist states (primarily the United States) and international monetary institutions (IMF and the World Bank), have adopted “structural adjustments,” “shock therapies,” or “economic reforms,” to restructure their economies in accordance with the requirements of neoliberal economics… | more |

Du Bois vs. Neoliberalism

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… | more |

World Poverty, Pauperization & Capital Accumulation

A discourse on poverty and the necessity of reducing its magnitude, if not eradicating it, has become fashionable today. It is a discourse of charity, in the nineteenth-century-style, which is does not seek to understand the economic and social mechanisms that generate poverty, although the scientific and technological means to eradicate it are now available… | more |

Capitalism as a World Economy

Harry Magdoff sat down to talk in front of a video camera in April 2003, three weeks before the conference “Imperialism Today” sponsored by Monthly Review in honor of his ninetieth birthday. An edited version of his remarks would be shown on a large screen at the start of the conference. But Harry has much to say that will be left on the cutting room floor, not because it lacks relevance, but because the time for the video is short, and a good portion of it will be devoted to how he became a socialist. Here, then, are Harry’s thoughts on capitalism, imperialism, the United States—and Iraq. (Note: the transcript of the interview was edited in July 2003 under Harry’s supervision to fill in a number of details.)… | more |

What Recovery?

Only a few years ago it was widely suggested that the capitalist economy had entered a new economic era. The rapid economic growth experienced during the brief period of the late 1990s, we were told, would become virtually endless, spurred on by rising productivity led by high-technology and the New Economy. The circumstances that now confront us following the bursting of the speculative bubble could not be more different. The country is once again mired in economic stagnation. In the present “recovery”—if indeed we can call it that—new jobs remain few and far between. Of the four sources of demand that create economic activity—personal consumption, business investment, government spending, and net exports—it is mainly consumption, backed by increasing debt, that is currently keeping the economy from slipping deeper into stagnation. Indeed, many business leaders and economists fear the return of recession—referred to as the likelihood of a “double dip.” Behind this fear lies excess capacity in almost every industry, the absence of new growth stimuli, slow growth or recession in most of the rest of the world, and the aftereffects of the bursting of the speculative stock market bubble. All of this suggests that there is more at stake than the traditional business cycle. At the very least, there is reason to expect the continuation of the tendency of stagnation… | more |

March 2003, Volume 54, Number 10

March 2003, Volume 54, Number 10

» Notes from the Editors

In the 1920s Andrew Mellon, who served as secretary of the treasury under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (it was sometimes said that they served under him), introduced a series of gargantuan tax cuts culminating in what was known as the Mellon Plan. This consisted of a huge cut in the income tax rates of the rich along with reductions in other taxes paid by the wealthy. High income tax rates, Mellon claimed, “tend to destroy individual initiative and enterprise and seriously impede the development of productive enterprise.” When Mellon’s foes, such as the great Progressive Senator Robert La Follette, declared that Mellon was trying to “let wealth escape” its fair share of taxation, he sought to turn the tables on them by charging that they were engaging in class warfare. “The man who seeks to perpetuate prejudice and class hatred,” the treasury secretary stated, “is doing America an ill service. In attempting to promote or defeat legislation by arraying one class of taxpayers against another, he shows a complete misconception of the principles of equality on which the country was founded” … | more |