The insidious nature of the economy, state, and cultural apparatus of global monopoly-finance capital is difficult to perceive—if only because it is to be found everywhere we look. Focusing on a specific case can therefore help us see what might otherwise elude us. A striking instance of this principle is to be found in the recent takeover of Chrysler by Fiat—linking a century-old Italian auto dynasty, the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–2009, the U.S. corporate bailout, the 2014 Superbowl, and the American folk music tradition.
Notes from the Editors
This issue of Monthly Review is mainly devoted to two commemorations: for Paul Alexander Baran, who died fifty years ago this month; and for Hugo Rafael Chávez Friás, who died one year ago this month.… Paul A. Baran was the author of The Political Economy of Growth (1957) and, with Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (1966). Baran’s work on the roots of underdevelopment focused on the way in which the imperialist world system robbed countries of their actual and potential economic surplus, chaining them to conditions of dependency.… Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in March 2013, provided the crucial inspiration for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Chávez created a new vernacular of revolution linked historically to Latin America’s Bolivarian tradition (marked by Bolívar’s famous statement that “equality is the law of laws”).
A comparison of the present state of the natural sciences with that of the social (or human) sciences cannot but give rise to a disquieting sense of the relative poverty of the latter. Although natural scientists are raising the alarm with regard to the planetary environmental emergency and are demanding social solutions, social scientists have largely failed to take up the challenge. To be sure, there has been a vast upsurge in recent years of social-scientific discussions of climate change. But most of this work has remained confined within the narrow boundaries of mainstream social science, relying on such amorphous, dehistoricized concepts as human behavior, organizations, institutions, government, economic growth, industrialization, modernization, the market, energy efficiency, public opinion, and the like—variables that can be treated in purely technical, “non-normative” terms, divorced from historical context, social relations, and social agency.… Conspicuously missing from conventional social science is any serious consideration of the actual social system in which we live and which clearly constitutes the root of the problem: namely, capitalism. Also excluded are such fundamental issues as accumulation, class (including its gendered and racialized forms), the state, the cultural apparatus, imperialism, monopolistic corporations, economic stagnation, financialization, Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift—and indeed all the other major historical realities of our time.
On November 16, 2013, Paul Krugman published a piece on his New York Times blog entitled “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” consisting of an extended commentary on former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers’s November 8 presentation to the IMF’s Economic Forum.… Krugman, in following up on Summers’s IMF speech, highlighted Alvin Hansen’s theory of secular stagnation in the 1930s to ’50s.… [acknowledging that] long-term economic stagnation…was now “the norm” for the economy, not the exception.… Writing in a fashion that could have come straight out of Monthly Review at any point in the last forty years, he declared: “We now know that the economic expansion of 2003–2007 was driven by a bubble. You can say the same about the later part of the 90s expansion; and you can in fact say the same about the later years of the Reagan expansion, which was driven at that point by runaway thrift institutions and a large bubble in commercial real estate.” But in trying to understand how stagnation itself came about and created this whole irrational set of economic conditions, Krugman…failed to draw attention to the much more important problem of investment under conditions of overcapacity and mature industry, as well as the whole question of monopolistic/oligopolistic capitalism—all of which were taken seriously at some level by Hansen, and were developed in a far more radical way by socialist thinkers such as Michał Kalecki, Joseph Steindl, Paul Baran, and Paul Sweezy.
The AFL-CIO held its annual convention this past September in Los Angeles. Many commentators hailed this meeting as historic, one in which the nation’s major labor federation finally came to grips with the near disappearance and growing political irrelevance of unions. Union density is abysmally low and declining, with an astonishing 6.6 percent of private sector employees now organized, lower than at any time in the past century. And, with rare exceptions, labor’s ability to influence legislation and workplace regulation is nonexistent. It could not even prevent passage last year of a right-to-work law in Michigan, the cradle of industrial unionism. All of this has translated into falling wages and benefits for union and nonunion workers alike, since the union threat effect on nonunion employers has diminished dramatically.… To reverse course, AFL-CIO leaders laid out a plan to broaden the federation’s membership base to include nonunion workers and members of fraternal groups, such as immigrant advocates and environmental organizations.… While we should applaud… [their] efforts, they leave important questions unanswered.
There is a pressing need for a coherent left strategy on climate change and in relation to the planetary environmental threat in general.… We therefore read with considerable interest Christian Parenti’s article, “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent. Parenti’s main thesis is that since the time with which to address the climate change problem is so short, “it is this society and these [existing capitalist] institutions that must cut emissions. That means, in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of total economic re-organization.”… [Parenti] insists that capitalism has been successful in the past in addressing “specific environmental crises” and that this will also likely be the case with respect to climate change.… Perhaps the best way to explain…[why we believe Parenti’s overall argument is wrong] is to counterpose what we think would be a more appropriate statement on the nature of a revolutionary strategy. It would read as follows: Anyone who thinks that it is conceivable to counter climate change (and the planetary environmental crisis as a whole) without opposing and in part superseding the logic of capital accumulation is in denial of the very clear findings of climate science and critical social science—which point to the immediacy and unprecedented scale of the present epochal crisis and thus the need for truly revolutionary social change.
A sign of the crass economic culture of our times is the recent release by Hasbro of the game “Monopoly Empire” based on the well-known “Monopoly” game, first mass produced in 1935 by Parker Bothers, now a Hasbro subsidiary. The new version can be played in thirty minutes and is designed to take the friction out of the game while glorifying the modern corporate system. Players collect iconic brands of corporations such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Samsung, which they add to billboard “towers” in a race to the top. Players no longer leave the game due to bankruptcy. The goal is simply to build the biggest monopoly brand empire.
When confronted in the 1980s with the failure of the younger generation of economists (both mainstream and radical) to take seriously the issue of the return of economic stagnation, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy stated in their book Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (Monthly Review Press, 1987, 12): “There is a temptation to say: just wait and see, you’ll find out soon enough…. But it would be a cop-out to leave it at that. We owe it to our readers at least to try to make clearer what we mean by stagnation and why we think it is so important.” They proceeded to do exactly that, producing a work that in terms of the trends of the last quarter-century has to be regarded as prescient.… Today, decades later, we can see the depth of the stagnation tendency of monopoly capitalism finally dawning upon some of the most realistic and competent of mainstream economists.
A Note from Bob McChesney. During my time as coeditor [of MR], communication colleagues would sometimes wonder what I was doing at MR. After all, I was a media scholar, and MR was many things, but it was not a magazine known for its work on communication. I explained the singular importance of the MR tradition, of the work of Sweezy, Magdoff, Leo Huberman, and Paul Baran, in my intellectual and political development. I also explained the importance of the MR work on advertising, monopoly, and technology in developing a radical critique of media and communication. But I had to concede the point, nonetheless.… Imagine my surprise, then, when Foster informed me two years ago that two drafts of a missing chapter of Baran and Sweezy’s magisterial Monopoly Capital (1966) had been discovered in their papers. Not only that, it was a chapter on media and culture. I was shocked, to say the least. Foster provided me with the backstory: it was meant to be the penultimate chapter of the book, but when Baran died in 1964, Sweezy elected to leave it out (after doing additional work on it) as the book was already quite long and there remained unresolved issues with it.
The U.S. working class was slow to respond to the hard times it faced during and after the Great Recession. Finally, however, in February 2011, workers in Wisconsin began the famous uprising that electrified the country, revolting in large numbers against Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to destroy the state’s public employee labor unions. A few months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York City to the rest of the nation and the world. Then, in September 2012, Chicago’s public school teachers struck, in defiance of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to destroy the teachers’ union and put the city’s schools firmly on the path of neoliberal austerity and privatization.… One thing that these three rebellions had in common is the growing awareness that economic and political power in the United States is firmly in the hands of a tiny minority of fantastically wealthy individuals whose avarice knows no bounds. These titans of finance want to eviscerate working men and women, making them as insecure as possible and totally dependent on the dog-eat-dog logic of the marketplace, while at the same time converting any and all aspects of life into opportunities for capital accumulation.