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
Review of the Month
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.)
If we learn nothing else from the war on Iraq and its subsequent occupation, it is that the U.S. ruling class has learned to make ideological warfare as important to its operations as military and economic warfare. A crucial component of this ideological war has been the campaign against “left-wing media bias,” with the objective of reducing or eliminating the prospect that mainstream U.S. journalism might be at all critical toward elite interests or the system set up to serve those interests. In 2001 and 2002, no less than three books purporting to demonstrate the media’s leftward tilt rested high atop the bestseller list. Such charges have already influenced media content, pushing journalists to be less critical of right-wing politics. The result has been to reinforce the corporate and rightist bias already built into the media system.
On November 11, 2000, Richard Haass—a member of the National Security Council and special assistant to the president under the elder Bush, soon to be appointed director of policy planning in the State Department of newly elected President George W. Bush—delivered a paper in Atlanta entitled “Imperial America.” For the United States to succeed at its objective of global preeminence, he declared, it would be necessary for Americans to “re-conceive their role from a traditional nation-state to an imperial power.” Haass eschewed the term “imperialist” in describing America’s role, preferring “imperial,” since the former connoted “exploitation, normally for commercial ends,” and “territorial control.”
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.
For a long time now it has been widely understood within economics that under the capitalism of giant firms, corporations no longer compete primarily through price competition. They engage instead in what economists call “monopolistic competition.” This consists chiefly of attempts to create monopoly positions for a particular brand, making it possible for corporations to charge more for the branded product while also expanding their market share. Competition is most intense in what Thorstein Veblen called the “production of salable appearances,” involving advertising, frequent model changes, branding of products, and the like. Once this logic takes over in twentieth and now twenty-first century capitalism it is seemingly unstoppable. All human needs, relationships and fears, the deepest recesses of the human psyche, become mere means for the expansion of the commodity universe under the force of modem marketing. With the rise to prominence of modem marketing, commercialism—the translation of human relations into commodity relations—although a phenomenon intrinsic to capitalism, has expanded exponentially.
On April 19, 1999, two F-18 jets mistook the navy’s red-and-white checked observation post on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico for a target, and dropped 500 pound bombs on it. Vieques resident David Sanes was working at the observation post as a security guard for the navy. He was killed almost instantly. Three other men from Vieques were seriously injured. Sanes’ death sparked a wave of protest—civil disobedience, marches, petitions, resolutions, and lobbying—which resulted in the promise, made by then U.S. President Clinton and reiterated by his successor, that the navy will leave Vieques by May 2003. The navy says these plans will not be affected by war on Iraq. As veterans of earlier navy promises, the Viequenses, and the people of Puerto Rico, are wary
The first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 generated hopes that the world would at long last address its global ecological problems and introduce a process of sustainable development. Now, with a second summit being held ten years later in Johannesburg, that dream has to a large extent faded. Even the principal supporters of this process have made it clear that they do not expect much to be achieved as a result of the Johannesburg summit, which is likely to go down in history as an absolute failure. We need to ask ourselves why.
Officially Washington’s current policy toward Iraq is to bring about a regime change—either through a military coup, or by means of a U.S. invasion, justified as a preemptive attack against a rogue state bent on developing and deploying weapons of mass destruction.* But a U.S. invasion, should it take place, would not confine its objectives to mere regime change in Baghdad. The larger goal would be nothing less than the global projection of U.S. power through assertion of American dominance over the entire Middle East. What the world is now facing therefore is the prospect of a major new development in the history of imperialism
The concept of “imperialism” was considered outside the acceptable range of political discourse within the ruling circles of the capitalist world for most of the twentieth century. Reference to “imperialism” during the Vietnam War, no matter how realistic, was almost always a sign that the writer was on the left side of the political spectrum. In a 1971 foreword to the U.S. edition of Pierre Jalée’s Imperialism in the Seventies Harry Magdoff noted, “As a rule, polite academic scholars prefer not to use the term ‘imperialism.’ They find it distasteful and unscientific.”
In early July 2002, I asked Harry Magdoff if he would be interviewed for the Statesman, a Kolkata, India newspaper for which I write political commentary. Our first interview was so satisfying that we continued for several sessions. What follows is a discussion of something Harry has considered, what we can learn from the experience of the Soviet Union. It is, characteristically, concerned with learning from history. Harry is methodologically committed to the actual world from which all theory springs, to which it must speak, and to meet whose specific particularities it must continually be reshaped.
History has provided us with numerous examples of economic stagnation and breakdown, as well as environmental degradation caused by human activity, even before capitalism existed. But capitalism’s central characteristic—the incessant drive to invest and accumulate wealth—gives birth to never-ending economic and environmental crises
The social relation of capital, as we all know, is a contradictory one. These contradictions, though stemming from capitalism’s internal laws of motion, extend out to phenomena that are usually conceived as external to the system, threatening the integrity of the entire biosphere and everything within it as a result of capital’s relentless expansion. How to understand capitalism’s ecological contradictions has therefore become a subject of heated debate among socialists. Two crucial issues in this debate are: (1) must ecological crisis lead to economic crisis under capitalism?, and (2) to what extent is there an ecological contradiction at the heart of capitalist society?
The little-understood roots of the left offer us the chance to demonstrate a vital continuity. A bridge just now being rediscovered exists between the nineteenth century Euro-American traditions upon which the modern Marxist movements were founded, and the cultures (i.e., the collective, including artistic, expression) of minority populations old and new to the United States
In a speech in 1999, Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford, candidly remarked that globalization is another term for U.S. domination.1 Such clarity tends, in itself, to negatively answer the question posed in the title of this talk. How can anyone argue that U.S. domination—or using the less polite term, U.S. imperialism—is compatible with social justice?