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Monthly Review Volume 68, Number 7 (December 2016)

December 2016 (Volume 68, Number 7)

In October 2016, the Sveriges Riksbank (Swedish Central Bank) Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel—commonly but incorrectly called the Nobel Prize in Economics—was awarded to two European-born, U.S.-based economists, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström, for their work on contracts related to executive pay. Hart and Holmström were lauded for having theorized what was thought to be the optimal mix of risk and incentives in pay packages for corporate executives, thereby determining the appropriate combination of basic salary, bonuses, and share options. In other words, they received the Riksbank Nobel Memorial Prize for their efforts to rationalize the exorbitant paychecks of CEOs and other corporate leaders—a direct service to big business.… | more…

Monthly Review Volume 68, Number 3 (July-August 2016)

July 2016 (Volume 68, Number 3)

Notes from the Editors

Commenting in the January 1973 issue of Monthly Review on the declining condition of the U.S. economy, Paul Sweezy brought back the question of “secular stagnation,” first advanced by Keynes’s leading follower Alvin Hansen in the late 1930s. “The U.S. economy,” Sweezy wrote, in an article entitled “Notes on the U.S. Situation at the End of 1972,” “is experiencing at one and the same time a cyclical boom and secular stagnation.” The resurfacing of stagnation, he suggested, was the product in part of the U.S. attempt to unwind from the Vietnam War, which had previously been lifting the economy.… A couple of months after the publication of Sweezy’s article, in March 1973, the New York Times, seeking to quiet the widening anti-capitalist protests, ran a series of articles on its op-ed page under the general heading of “Capitalism, for Better or Worse.” The series concentrated on the two phenomena of the weakening of economic prosperity and the decline of military spending resulting from the drawing down of the Vietnam War. One of these articles, misleadingly entitled “Taking Stock of War,” appearing on March 14, was written by Paul Samuelson, then considered to be the leading neoclassical economist in the United States. … | more…

Monopoly Capital at the Half-Century Mark

A half-century after its publication, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital remains the single most influential work in Marxian political economy to emerge in the United States.… In recent years, interest in Baran and Sweezy’s magnum opus has revived, primarily for two reasons: (1) the global resurgence of debates over the constellation of issues that their work addressed—including economic stagnation, monopoly, inequality, militarism and imperialism, multinational corporations, economic waste, surplus capital absorption, financial speculation, and plutocracy; and (2) the new, fundamental insights into the book’s origins resulting from the publication of its two missing chapters and the public release of Baran and Sweezy’s correspondence.… I shall divide this introduction on the influence and development of the argument of Monopoly Capital over the last fifty years into three parts: (1) a brief treatment of the book itself and its historical context; (2) a discussion of responses to Monopoly Capital, and of the development of the tradition that it represented, during its first four decades, up to the Great Financial Crisis that began in 2007; and (3) an assessment of the continuing significance of monopoly capital theory in the context of the historical period stretching from the Great Financial Crisis to the present.… | more…

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…

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…

Monopoly Capital in the Classroom

In 1964, I began my graduate studies at Cambridge University. The reading list included a book by Josef Steindl with the intriguing title Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism. I read it, and was immediately drawn to the last chapter, “Karl Marx and the Accumulation of Capital.” Aside from reading the first few chapters of Capital in a study group, I had not yet read any of Marx’s economic writings (predictably, none had been assigned in any of my college courses). However, that last chapter persuaded me that Steindl’s analysis aligned with what I understood to be Marx’s general vision about the “laws of motion” of capitalist economies.… This set the stage for my reading of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in the spring of 1966. I devoured that book. I doubt that I got up from the kitchen table until I had read it from cover to cover.… | more…

Reading Capital, Reading Historical Capitalisms

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…

Orthodox Economics and the Science of Climate Change

We have finally reached the point where most people around the world believe that climate change is really happening. Almost a decade ago, the landmark report by Nicholas Stern sparked a fierce debate among economists, not over whether climate change was real, but over the costs of addressing it. In the years since, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published further alarming reports on projected future global temperatures, rates of glacial melting, and sea levels. Most recently, last December saw an unprecedented agreement by nearly 200 countries at the Paris climate summit to take steps to address the problem.… My concern here is therefore not to continue making the case for the reality of climate change, but instead to show how that reality is portrayed—and distorted—in the mainstream media, with behind-the-scenes assistance from orthodox economic analysis.… | more…

Monthly Review Volume 67, Number 11 (April 2016)

April 2016 (Volume 67, Number 11)

The March/April 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is devoted in large part to the topic of economic stagnation.… [Of the] eight articles on stagnation, only one…—”The Age of Secular Stagnation” by Lawrence H. Summers—is, in our opinion, of any real importance.… Summers heavily criticizes those like Robert J. Gordon, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016), who attribute stagnation to supply-side “headwinds”…blocking productivity growth.… Likewise Summers dispatches those like Kenneth Rogoff who see stagnation as merely the product of a debt supercycle associated with periodic financial crises.… Despite such sharp criticisms of other mainstream interpretations of stagnation, Summers’s own analysis can be faulted for being superficial and vague, lacking historical concreteness.… In fact, the current mainstream debate on secular stagnation is so superficial and circumspect that one cannot help but wonder whether the main protagonists—figures like Summers, Gordon, Paul Krugman, and Tyler Cowen—are not deliberately tiptoeing around the matter, worried that if they get too close or make too much noise they might awaken some sleeping giant (the working class?) as in the days of the Great Depression and the New Deal.… | more…

January 2016 (Volume 67, Number 8)

January 2016 (Volume 67, Number 8)

Prabhat Patnaik’s Review of the Month in this issue addresses problems of economic stagnation and imperialism in the context of explaining the current global crisis. Patnaik is part of a broad tradition of Marxian thought and heterodox economic analysis more generally that has long focused on issues of economic stagnation under monopoly capitalism. Such questions are now finally being taken up even by orthodox economists, but in ways that systematically ignore decades of contributions in this regard made by heterodox theorists. Ever since Larry Summers raised the issue of secular stagnation (referring back to Alvin Hansen’s theory of the 1930s and ’40s) at an IMF meeting in 2013, the question of stagnation has become part of a worldwide economic debate, moving issues that were once on the margins to center stage. This has resulted in a proliferation of mainstream economic treatments of the history of the secular stagnation concept in the 1930–1950s period, after which mainstream economists had essentially declared the issue dead.… | more…

Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, Then and Now

An interview with John Bellamy Foster

Monopoly Capital was the principal Marxian, and indeed radical, political-economic work to be published in the 1960s, written by the two most prestigious Marxian economists in the United States and perhaps globally. It grew out of the critique of militarism and imperialism and economic waste as much as out of economic crisis. It was one of the first major works to focus on multinational corporations. Its final chapter emphasized the “irrational system” and was influenced by [Paul] Baran’s early background with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. All of this made it extremely influential with the New Left in the United States, particularly its more radical, socialist wing. A good indication of this is Assar Lindbeck’s 1971 mainstream attack on what he called The Political Economy of the New Left, which focused almost entirely on Monopoly Capital.… | more…

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