For a long time now orthodox economics has been hindered by its extreme irrealism—a refusal even to attempt a realistic theoretical understanding of how modern capitalism functions. The shift to using fanciful assumptions to explore largely minor issues, following a brief Keynesian moment in the post-Second World War era, has been in many ways self-reinforcing. Once fundamental characteristics of the capitalist economy such as labor exploitation, accumulation, built-in inequality, monopoly power, rent-seeking behavior, technological change, and the tendency to stagnation were removed from the analysis—as a result of an ideological process of system-rationalization—there was little recourse but to fall back in successive stages on more and more abstract models based on increasingly purified notions of individual rationality.… Nevertheless, the deepening crisis of today’s monopoly-finance capital has given rise to a new era of questioning within the economics profession, and some top-tier neoclassical economists are now struggling—though hindered at every step by their own training and inclinations—to recapture knowledge long abandoned.
When the real estate market was building momentum during the 2000s, [new types of restructured, risk-based financial instruments] looked like a free lunch and insurers could pocket the insurance premium without ever being called in to make up for losses. However, when the market reversed in 2006, the payday came: some insurers lost heavily, others went bust, and a few, such as AIG, were bailed out. … By the end of the cycle, we had learned about the pro-cyclical nature of ratings-based structured products and the dangers of the new food chain. Hedge fund manager George Soros called Credit Default Swaps “weapons of mass destruction.” We had, many believed, been defeated by novelty. Or had we? Many think that subprime products are new, and that the use of ratings to structure financial instruments and so-called Credit Default Swaps (CDS) are a recent invention permitted by advances in modern finance. They ought to study the history of Levy Maybaum, a man who lived in New Jersey in the late nineteenth century and invented the first CDS.
Sandwiched between revelations of mounting losses ($5.8 billion and rising) at JP Morgan in the face of bungled bets by a trader known as the London Whale, and allegations of money laundering for Mexican drug cartels and breaches of U.S. sanctions by HSBC, the disclosures of deliberate rigging of the Libor rate by Barclay’s Bank might appear mundane and a trifle boring in comparison. It is, however, this scandal about an arcane interest rate that most starkly exposes the rotten core of the global financial system.… [T]he scandal is not simply one of colossal greed and hubris. It is about systemic failure. It is about the fictions and illusions that form the basis of today’s complex global financial system.
Tadeusz Kowalik, the doyen of Polish political economists, died at his home in Warsaw on July 30, 2012. Kowalik is best known as the last surviving coauthor of the great Polish economist, Michał Kalecki (1899–1970), as an advisor to the Polish trade union movement Solidarity when it played a key part in bringing down the Communist government in the 1980s, and subsequently as a fierce critic of the capitalism that was put in its place. He challenged both the commonly accepted view of the Keynesian Revolution and the inability of Polish Communists to come to terms with their revolutionary past and find a place for themselves in the modern world.
The question of “underconsumptionism” is a tangled one—due not only to the commonplace fallacy associated with what is known as “crude underconsumptionism,” but also because the term has been used at various times to refer to what Joseph Schumpeter in his History of Economic Analysis called “non-spending” or effective demand theories (the second in a typology of underconsumption theories designated by Schumpeter). Underconsumption in this sense, however, would encompass theorists like Keynes and Kalecki who focus not on underconsumption per se, but on underinvestment. Hence, the term is no longer applied to theories of this type (except by some Marxian critics of “underconsumptionism”).… In the following exchange with Jonathan Penzner published in the April 1982 issue of Monthly Review, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, then editors of the magazine, pointed to the fallacy of crude underconsumptionism.
Capitalism today is caught in a seemingly endless crisis, with economic stagnation and upheaval circling the globe. But while the world has been fixated on the economic problem, global environmental conditions have been rapidly worsening, confronting humanity with its ultimate crisis: one of long-term survival. The common source of both of these crises resides in the process of capital accumulation. Likewise the common solution is to be sought in a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large,” going beyond the regime of capital.… It is still possible for humanity to avert what economist Robert Heilbroner once called “ecological Armageddon.” The means for the creation of a just and sustainable world currently exist, and are to be found lying hidden in the growing gap between what could be achieved with the resources already available to us, and what the prevailing social order allows us to accomplish. It is this latent potential for a quite different human metabolism with nature that offers the master-key to a workable ecological exit strategy.
While the global economy is mired in ever-deepening crisis, there is no abatement in the propaganda rationalizing free markets and perfect competition. In the world of “perfect competition” governed by the “invisible hand” of market forces, no single actor (or even a combination of a few) is in a position to influence the market equilibrium, and prices are determined by the balance of demand and supply. This is a win-win world, where actors have sufficient information for arriving at their respective choices, consumers are free to make the correct decisions, and this self-governing system leads to progressively increasing welfare for all.… In this mythological world, there is also a hell, whose name is monopoly or oligopoly, the exact opposite of perfect competition, where a few sellers or producers distort the markets and generate inefficiency, monopoly profits, and compromise consumer choice.… The only difficulty with this mythology is that, while we are constantly told that the world is increasingly being governed by competition and market forces, the real world of business and industry is moving rapidly away from such free competition, as concentration, domination, and control of most economic activities has become common place.… It might be that perfectly competitive markets will provide answers for all of our ills, but in the real world, there is an absence of “free markets,” with market rigging and failure everywhere in the economy.
The theme of the 2012 Left Forum, “Occupy the System—Confronting Global Capitalism,” calls for a historical imagination informed by a realistic sense of where we are. To occupy the system is first to be aware of the system as a system—a system of unequal privilege and control. It requires that we occupy the narrative of public debate, which is something the Occupy movement, to a remarkable degree, has been able to achieve. Even President Obama, who so far has followed the economic policies of his Wall Street-friendly advisers, has used campaign rhetoric taken from Occupy Wall Street. But this time around voters are hardly convinced that the “Change” Obama promised last election will happen through the existing system. The breath of fresh air from Occupy and related activism challenges corporate power and capitalism.
Marge Piercy is the author of eighteen poetry books, most recently The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2010 from Knopf. Her most recent novel is Sex Wars (Harper Perennial) and PM Press has republished Vida and Dance the Eagle to Sleep with new introductions.
As the economies of Europe, North America, and Japan continue to stagnate orthodox economics has revealed itself to be bankrupt, unable to explain what is happening much less what to do about it. It was not the failure to see the “Crisis of 2008” coming that represents the economics profession’s biggest failure, Paul Krugman declared in a recent talk, but what came after: “the profession’s descent into uninformed quarreling,” coupled with its reversion to Say’s Law (the notion that supply creates its own demand)—the disproof of which was the main achievement of the Keynesian revolution.… Yet… [no] prominent orthodox analyst, has sought to engage in a genuine overhaul of received economics on the level of what Keynes accomplished in the 1930s. Indeed, no such scientific revolution appears possible within mainstream economics today, which is characterized not by its realism but its irrealism—serving now an entirely ideological function. Here one is reminded of Paul Sweezy’s observation nearly fifty years ago: “Bourgeois economics, I fear, has irrevocably committed itself to what Marx called ‘the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetic.’ If I am right, Keynes may turn out to be its last great representative”
Fifty years ago this month two chapters, “The Giant Corporation” and “On the Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society—I,” of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s then forthcoming book, Monopoly Capital, were published in a special issue of Monthly Review. Among the other chapters in rough draft form by the end of 1962 were “Some Implications for Economic Theory” (later to be re-entitled “Some Theoretical Implications”) and “On the Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society—II.” However, Baran’s death in March 1964, before the book was finished, left some unresolved questions with regard to these chapters. Consequently, Sweezy decided to leave these two chapters out of the book when it was finally published in 1966.… This special issue of Monthly Review is organized around the publication of one of these missing chapters of Monopoly Capital: “Some Theoretical Implications.”
That all is not well in the realm of bourgeois economic theory is strongly felt by its closest observers. Professor Mason’s blunt statement that “the functioning of the corporate system has not to date been adequately explained,” could hardly be contradicted by anyone familiar with contemporary economic literature. Its most conspicuous feature is, indeed, this very failure to come to grips with the most important aspects of what, one would think, should constitute its central problem.… The reasons for this striking reluctance to place the realities of modern capitalism where they belong: at the center of theoretical attention, are not far to seek… There can be no doubt that the model of a perfectly competitive market economy is “more tractable,” that the examination of its manifold properties is more readily achievable by means of conventional tools of economic analysis than that of a system dominated by oligopolistic corporations. It may not be economics’ claim to applause, but it is understandable that most of its practitioners prefer not to tackle “intractable” matters, but to move along the line of the least theoretic resistance.