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Monopoly Capital Then and Now

Monopoly Capital had an outstanding impact on students of my generation. It was published just as the Vietnam War was heating up, when students and youth throughout the world were beginning to “contest the structures”—to use a favorite expression of that time—and were eagerly looking for analyses of these “structures.” Monopoly Capital, written jointly by two renowned Marxist economists, each of whom had already authored a classic, provided just that. It was avidly read in progressive circles around the world.… For students of economics like myself, there was an additional reason for its impact. Economic literature from both the Communist world and from Communist writers in the West tended to underplay the problem of aggregate demand. While Marx had been a trenchant critic of Say’s Law and had highlighted the demand problem, it was by this time seen at most as a problem underlying periodic crises, but not one that could affect capitalism in a secular sense, ex ante.… | more…

Kalecki and Steindl in the Transition to Monopoly Capital

Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital is a classic that has long outlived the conjuncture in American capitalism that it described. In a deep and scholarly way, its authors exposed the deep structure of that capitalism, which determined the dynamics of the system and therefore those “surface” phenomena of unemployment and poverty—symptoms not of any functional malaise in capitalism (the “market failures” beloved by academic economists), but of the very way in which modern capitalism works. The authors of the book may therefore be forgiven for providing only the lightest sketch of the ideas and theories they used in their analysis. In this essay, I try to uncover some of those ideas and theories to show how they represent a shift from the analysis in Sweezy’s earlier work the Theory of Capitalist Development, and how the two books are linked to the ideas of Karl Marx in a way that can only be understood through the work of Michał Kalecki and Josef Steindl. Baran and Sweezy knew and admired Kalecki and Steindl and, as I will try to show, continued what might be called Marx’s “project” very much in their spirit.… | more…

The Profits of Financialization

The financialization of capitalism has been marked by the sustained rise of financial profits. In the United States, financial profits as a proportion of total profits rose enormously from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, collapsed during 2007–09, and subsequently recovered, but without reaching previous heights. During this period, the trend of the average rate of profit has been largely flat. The relative rise of financial profits in spite of stagnant average profitability represents a theoretical and empirical conundrum. We will argue that the answer should be sought partly in financial expropriation, but also in public interest rates kept at extraordinarily low levels. In this light, the rise of financial profits represents a vast public subsidy to the financial system characteristic of financialization.… | more…

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Surplus Absorption and Waste in Neoliberal Monopoly Capitalism

The central problem in advanced monopoly capitalism is not one of scarce resources clashing against innate, insatiable wants. Rather, it is one of an abundance of production clashing against saturated consumption and investment markets. In order to absorb potential economic output and forestall excess capacity, business interests must continuously search for new markets to exploit or entice existing customers who stand ready to buy the latest product, iteration, or service, and to induce new investment. The key to business survival in a capitalist economy is continual expansion of market share and reach: grow or die.… The efforts applied to this relentless drive undermine the conventional wisdom of market-determined pricing—for were a competitive price system in place, the funds for these expenditures would not exist. As I will show, the resources and funds expended in this quixotic endeavor to grow can be broadly referred to as the “economic surplus.”… | more…

Hydrocarbons and the Illusion of Sustainability

This article will be made available online on August 1st.

After fifty years, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital has stood the test of time. Not only did it provide a lucid description of midcentury American society, but Monopoly Capital established a framework for analyzing events to come.… By bringing Marxian theory into their historical moment, they fomented many debates and encouraged the development of various perspectives, a legacy that has expanded to include analyses of the labor process, imperialism, finance, globalization, and the environment.… They elucidated a fundamental contradiction of the time. Capitalism is a system of self-expanding value that must continually accumulate, yet is confined by a social and institutional order that precludes rapid accumulation. This framework is especially useful for analyzing the fundamental problems of the twenty-first century. Among those crucial problems is the demise of the hydrocarbon economy.… | more…

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Multinational Corporations and the Globalization of Monopoly Capital

From the 1960s to the Present

This article will be made available online on August 22nd.

In 1964, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy wrote an essay entitled “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” for a festschrift in honor of the sixty-fifth birthday of the great Polish Marxist economist Michał Kalecki.… [T]he essay offered the first major analysis of multinational corporations within Marxian theory. Parts of it were incorporated into Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in 1966, two years after Baran’s death. Yet for all that book’s depth, “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” provided a more complete view of their argument on the growth of multinationals. In October and November 1969, Harry Magdoff and Sweezy wrote their article “Notes on the Multinational Corporation,” picking up where Baran and Sweezy had left off. That same year, Magdoff published his landmark The Age of Imperialism, which systematically extended the analysis of the U.S. economy into the international domain.… In the analyses of Baran, Sweezy, and Magdoff, as distinct from the dominant liberal perspective, the multinational corporation was the product of the very same process of concentration and centralization of capital that had created monopoly capital itself.… | more…

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Reading Capital, Reading Historical Capitalisms

This article will be made available online on August 29th.

Marx’s Capital presents a rigorous scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production and capitalist society, and how they differ from earlier forms. Volume 1 delves into the heart of the problem. It directly clarifies the meaning of the generalization of commodity exchanges between private property owners (and this characteristic is unique to the modern world of capitalism, even if commodity exchanges had existed earlier), specifically the emergence and dominance of value and abstract social labor.… Volume 2 demonstrates why and how capital accumulation functions, more specifically, why and how accumulation successfully integrates the exploitation of labor in its reproduction and overcomes the effects of the social contradiction that it represents.… Volume 3 of Capital is different. Here Marx moves from the analysis of capitalism in its fundamental aspects (its “ideal average”) to that of the historical reality of capitalism.… To move from the reading of Capital (and particularly of volumes 1 and 2) to that of historical capitalisms at successive moments of their deployment has its own requirements, even beyond reading all of Marx and Engels.… | more…

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Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

Thanks to breakthroughs in production and food science, agribusiness has been able to devise new ways to grow more food and get it more places more quickly. There is no shortage of news items on the hundreds of thousands of hybrid poultry—each animal genetically identical to the next—packed together in megabarns, grown out in a matter of months, then slaughtered, processed, and shipped to the other side of the globe. In Big Farms Make Big Flu, a collection of dispatches by turns harrowing and thought-provoking, Rob Wallace tracks the ways influenza and other pathogens emerge from an agriculture controlled by multinational corporations.… | more…

Marx’s Ecology and the Left

One of the lasting contributions of the Frankfurt School of social theorists, represented especially by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, was the development of a philosophical critique of the domination of nature.… Yet their critique of the Enlightenment exploitation of nature was eventually extended to a critique of Marx himself as an Enlightenment figure, especially in relation to his mature work in Capital.… So all-encompassing was the critique of the “dialectic of the Enlightenment” within the main line of the Frankfurt School, and within what came to be known as “Western Marxism”…, that it led to the estrangement of thinkers in this tradition not only from the later Marx, but also from natural science—and hence nature itself. Consequently, when the ecological movement emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, Western Marxism, with its abstract, philosophical notion of the domination of nature, was ill-equipped to analyze the changing and increasingly perilous forms of material interaction between humanity and nature.… | more…

Radical Leisure

Connections, both real and hoped for, between the labor movement and environmentalists have been news for at least fifteen years now. The possibility of such a connection came into wider view at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, when alliances between trade unionists and other protest groups made headlines…. Despite the once-exciting and novel possibility being now institutionalized in such organizations as the Labor Network for Sustainability, the Blue-Green Alliance, and SustainLabour, the thrill seems to be gone for mainstream environmentalist discourse, and labor has largely faded from view.… [The struggle to reduce work hours is fertile ground for uniting the efforts of workers and environmentalists.]… That fight for time, however, came to an end decades ago. Now those with jobs demand higher wages instead, and perhaps even overtime work, while the many unemployed and underemployed fight to work at all. Today the dominant idea of a working-class agenda is to fight to be allowed to sell one’s time.… | more…

Facing the Anthropocene

Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

Science tells us that a new and dangerous stage in planetary evolution has begun—the Anthropocene, a time of rising temperatures, extreme weather, rising oceans, and mass species extinctions. Humanity faces not just more pollution or warmer weather, but a crisis of the Earth System. If business as usual continues, this century will be marked by rapid deterioration of our physical, social, and economic environment. Large parts of Earth will become uninhabitable, and civilization itself will be threatened. Facing the Anthropocene shows what has caused this planetary emergency, and what we must do to meet the challenge.… | more…

Nature

This article is adapted from John Bellamy Foster, “Nature,” in Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson, ed., Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2016), 279-86, http://akpress.org/keywords-for-radicals.html.

“Nature,” wrote Raymond Williams in Keywords, “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” It is derived from the Latin natura, as exemplified by Lucretius’s great didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from the first century BCE. The word “nature” has three primary, interrelated meanings: (1) the intrinsic properties or essence of things or processes; (2) an inherent force that directs or determines the world; and (3) the material world or universe, the object of our sense perceptions—both in its entirety and variously understood as including or excluding God, spirit, mind, human beings, society, history, culture, etc.… | more…

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