On the brink of the 2012 presidential election, and without considering that electoral contest itself, it is useful to comment on the state of U.S. democracy. The most striking lesson from contemporary U.S. election campaigns is how vast and growing the distance is between the rhetoric and pronouncements of the politicians and pundits and the actual deepening, immense, and largely ignored problems that afflict the people of the United States.… Mainstream politics seem increasingly irrelevant to the real problems the nation faces…. The degeneration of U.S. politics is a long-term process.… capitalism and democracy have always had a difficult relationship. The former generates severe inequality and the latter is predicated upon political equality.… Capitalist democracy therefore becomes more democratic to the extent that it is less capitalist (dominated by wealth) and to the extent to which popular forces—those without substantial property—are able to organize successfully to win great victories…. In the past four decades such organized popular forces in the United States—never especially strong compared to most other capitalist democracies—have been decimated, with disastrous consequences. The United States has long been considered a “weak democracy”; by the second decade of the new century that is truly an exaggeration. Today, the United States is better understood as what John Nichols and I term a “Dollarocracy”—the rule of money rather than the rule of the people—a specifically U.S. form of plutocracy.
Review of the Month
From Tahrir Square to Wall Street, from Athens to Montreal, dreams of emancipation are mobilizing a new wave of revolts all over the world. Simultaneously the forces of repression are being unleashed everywhere to impose “new mechanisms of social control” with the aim of establishing “new conditions for achieving surplus value” in the aftermath of a protracted capitalist economic crisis.1 Some anticipated a Chinese popular uprising following the Arab Spring. Instead, since spring 2012 the world has seen a sensational drama of elite struggle surrounding the ousting of the Chongqing head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Politburo member Bo Xilai, including a crackdown on his Chongqing Model of development. Even though the CCP has been able to contain large-scale social unrest, divisions amongst the elite became a focal point of political struggle during this dangerous year of power transition in China. [T]
Majority opinion in Europe holds that Europe has all it takes to become an economic and political power comparable to, and consequently independent of, the United States…. I believe that Europe suffers from three major handicaps that rule out such a comparison. First of all, the northern part of the American continent…is endowed with natural resources incomparably greater than the part of Europe to the west of Russia…. Secondly, Europe is made up of a good number of historically distinct nations whose diversity of political cultures…has sufficient weight to exclude recognition of a “European people”… In the third place…capitalist development in Europe was and remains uneven, whereas American capitalism has developed in a fairly uniform way throughout the northern American area, at least since the Civil War. Europe, to the west of historic Russia…is composed of three unequally developed sets of capitalist societies.
When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.
The Great Financial Crisis and the Great Recession began in the United States in 2007 and quickly spread across the globe, marking what appears to be a turning point in world history. Although this was followed within two years by a recovery phase, the world economy five years after the onset of the crisis is still in the doldrums…. The one bright spot in the world economy, from a growth standpoint, has been the seemingly unstoppable expansion of a handful of emerging economies, particularly China. Yet, the continuing stability of China is now also in question. Hence, the general consensus among informed economic observers is that the world capitalist economy is facing the threat of long-run economic stagnation (complicated by the prospect of further financial deleveraging)…. It is this issue of the stagnation of the capitalist economy, even more than that of financial crisis or recession that has now emerged as the big question worldwide.
The United States is in the midst of its quadrennial presidential election, a process that now extends so long as to be all but permanent. The campaign is also drenched in more money given by a small handful of billionaires than has been the case in the past. Since the 1970s the amount spent on political campaigns has increased dramatically in almost every election cycle. It has led to the formation of what we term the “money-and-media election complex,” which has a revenue base in the many billions of campaign dollars donated annually, and has effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States. Moreover, the rate of increase in campaign spending from 2008 to 2010, and especially from 2008 to 2012, is now at an all-time high.
Growing inequality of income and wealth have characterized the U.S. economy for at least the past thirty years. Today, this inequality has become a central feature of politics, both mainstream and within such radical uprisings as the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. This essay attempts to uncover the roots of inequality, showing that the source of it is in the nature of the capitalist economy. The magnitude of inequality ebbs and flows with the balance of class forces, but great inequality is built into the system’s fundamental structures.
Five years after the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–09 began there is still no sign of a full recovery of the world economy. Consequently, concern has increasingly shifted from financial crisis and recession to slow growth or stagnation, causing some to dub the current era the Great Stagnation. Stagnation and financial crisis are now seen as feeding into one another.… To be sure, a few emerging economies have seemingly bucked the general trend, continuing to grow rapidly—most notably China, now the world’s second largest economy after the United States. Yet, as [IMF Managing Director Christine] Lagarde warned her Chinese listeners, “Asia is not immune” to the general economic slowdown, “emerging Asia is also vulnerable to developments in the financial sector.” So sharp were the IMF’s warnings, dovetailing with widespread fears of a sharp Chinese economic slowdown, that Lagarde in late November was forced to reassure world business, declaring that stagnation was probably not imminent in China (the Bloomberg.com headline ran: “IMF Sees Chinese Economy Avoiding Stagnation.”)
One of the enduring myths about capitalism that continues to be perpetuated in mainstream economic textbooks and other pedagogic strategies is that labor supply is somehow exogenous to the economic system. The supply of labor is typically assumed, especially in standard growth theories, to be determined by the rate of population growth, which in turn is also seen as “outside” the economic system rather than in interplay with it. The reality is, of course, very different: the supply of labor has been very much a result of economic processes, not something extraneous to it. Throughout its history, capitalism has proved adept at causing patterns of labor supply to change in accordance with demand…. But nowhere has this particular capacity of capitalism to generate its own labor been more evident than in the case of female labor.
Over the next few decades we are facing the possibility, indeed the probability, of global catastrophe on a level unprecedented in human history. The message of science is clear. As James Hansen, the foremost climate scientist in the United States, has warned, this may be “our last chance to save humanity.” In order to understand the full nature of this threat and how it needs to be addressed, it is essential to get a historical perspective on how we got where we are, and how this is related to the current socioeconomic system, namely capitalism.