In 1997, in his last published article, Paul Sweezy referred to “the financialization of the capital accumulation process” as one of the three main economic tendencies at the turn of the century (the other two were the growth of monopoly power and stagnation). Those familiar with economic theory will realize that the phrase was meant to be paradoxical. All traditions of economics, to varying degrees, have sought to separate out analytically the role of finance from the “real economy.” Accumulation is conceived as real capital formation, which increases overall economic output, as opposed to the appreciation of financial assets, which increases wealth claims but not output. In highlighting the financialization of accumulation, Sweezy was therefore pointing to what can be regarded as “the enigma of capital” in our time
Review of the Month
Over the past generation, the U.S. economy as well as most of the rest of the global economy have been dominated by the idea that free market capitalism produces dynamic growth, financial stability, and as close as we are likely to come to a fair society. Supporters of this pro-market framework hold that government interventions to encourage growth, stability, or even fairness will almost always produce more harm than good. This mode of thinking has been the intellectual foundation for the era of financial deregulation in the United States—the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall regulatory system that was built amid the rubble of the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing 1930s Depression. The Clinton administration provided the final nails in the coffin of financial regulation with the passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act in 1999
Twenty years ago, left forces in Latin America and in the world in general were going through a difficult period. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union hurtled into an abyss and disappeared completely by the end of 1991. Deprived of the rearguard it needed, the Sandinista Revolution was defeated at the polls in February 1990, and Central American guerrilla movements were forced to demobilize. The only country that kept the banners of revolution flying was Cuba, although all the omens said that its days were numbered. Given that situation, it was difficult to imagine that twenty years later, left-wing leaders would govern most of the Latin American countries.
Perhaps nothing points so clearly to the alienated nature of politics in the present day United States as the fact that capitalism, the economic system that drives the society, is effectively off-limits to critical review or discussion. To the extent that capitalism is mentioned by politicians or pundits, it is regarded in hushed tones of reverence for the genius of the market, its unquestioned efficiency, and its providential authority. One might quibble with a corrupt and greedy CEO or a regrettable loss of jobs, but the superiority and necessity of capitalism—or, more likely, its euphemism, the so-called “free market system”—is simply beyond debate or even consideration. There are, of course, those who believe that the system needs more regulation and that there is room for all sorts of fine-tuning. Nevertheless, there is no questioning of the basics.
Has the power of financial interests in U.S. society increased? Has Wall Street’s growing clout affected the U.S. state itself? How is this connected to the present crisis? We will argue that the financialization of U.S. capitalism over the last four decades has been accompanied by a dramatic and probably long-lasting shift in the location of the capitalist class, a growing proportion of which now derives its wealth from finance as opposed to production. This growing dominance of finance can be seen today in the inner corridors of state power.
Travelers from the United States to Cuba cross more than ninety miles of sea: they cross decades of history. They may be limited to one suitcase, but they carry trunks full of ideological baggage, including biases about Cuba, beliefs about communists, commitments as to what a good society should be like, and a collection of conventional poli-sci formulas about power, government, and human behavior…Members of delegations usually have planned itineraries, visiting various institutions and cultural events. They will learn about health care, education, cultural and sport resources, commitment to an ecological pathway of development, urban agriculture, equitable distribution through the rationing system, full employment, formal aspects of the political and judicial systems, achievements in gender and racial equality. These are all real, and demonstrate how far a poor country can go with so little. But it is obviously not the full story. There is nothing sinister in this. These are the things in which Cuba has pioneered, and of which Cuba is most proud and eager to show the world…My own experience has been that the more committed revolutionaries have the most serious, complex, and thoughtful criticisms, while counterrevolutionaries mostly complain about particular hardships or unpleasant incidents.
For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December 2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”
Three years ago, in December 2006, I wrote an article for Monthly Review entitled “Monopoly-Finance Capital.” The occasion was the anniversary of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published four decades earlier in 1966.…The article…[discussed] “the dual reality” of stagnant growth (or stagnation) and financialization, characterizing the advanced economies in this phase of capitalism. I concluded that this pointed to two possibilities: (1) a major financial and economic crisis in the form of “global debt meltdown and debt-deflation,” and (2) a prolongation of the symbiotic stagnation-financialization relationship of monopoly-finance capital. In fact, what we have experienced in the last two years, I would argue, is each of these sequentially: the worst financial-economic crisis since the 1930s, and then the system endeavoring to right itself by returning to financialization as its normal means of countering stagnation. It is thus doubly clear today that we are in a new phase of capitalism. In what follows, I shall attempt to outline the logic of this argument, as it evolved out of the work of Baran, Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff in particular, and how it relates to our present economic and social predicament.
It is now universally recognized within science that humanity is confronting the prospect—if we do not soon change course—of a planetary ecological collapse. Not only is the global ecological crisis becoming more and more severe, with the time in which to address it fast running out, but the dominant environmental strategies are also forms of denial, demonstrably doomed to fail, judging by their own limited objectives. This tragic failure, I will argue, can be attributed to the refusal of the powers that be to address the roots of the ecological problem in capitalist production and the resulting necessity of ecological and social revolution.
The principle of endless accumulation that defines capitalism is synonymous with exponential growth, and the latter, like cancer, leads to death. John Stuart Mill, who recognized this, imagined that a “stationary state of affairs” would put an end to this irrational process. John Maynard Keynes shared this optimism of Reason. But neither was equipped to understand how the necessary overcoming of capitalism could prevail. By contrast, Marx, by giving proper importance to the emerging class struggle, could imagine the reversal of power of the capitalist class, concentrated today in the hands of the ruling oligarchy.