In 2006, a few months after the Nobel Peace Prize for Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank was announced, I was visiting Germany [where many] Germans…looked at it as a victory over neoliberalism. One German activist theatre group invited me to the show of their latest drama, Taslima and the Microcredit. The show was eye opening for me: I realized to what extent Grameen Bank had been misunderstood in the West, and how media campaigns and public relations activities, including embedded studies, created a myth around the Grameen Bank and Yunus.… The theatre organizers requested me to join a discussion following the show. Standing before a mesmerized audience, I had to tell them the hard truth with facts and figures. I said that, despite their best wishes, they were making a terrible mistake. Grameen had never been an alternative to the World Bank-pushed neoliberal economic model; rather, it was born and brought up as a necessary supplement to it.
The current stage of capitalism is characterized by the increased power of finance capital. How to understand the economics of this shift and its political implications is now central for both the left and the larger society. There can be little doubt that a signature development of our time is the growth of finance and monopoly power.
Over the last thirty years, capital has abstracted upwards, from production to finance; its sphere of operations has expanded outwards, to every nook and cranny of the globe; the speed of its movement has increased, to milliseconds; and its control has extended to include “everything.” We now live in the era of global finance capitalism.… Financialization has involved increasingly exotic forms of financial instruments and the growth of a shadow-banking system, off the balance sheets of the banks. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 symbolized the almost complete deregulation of a financial sector that has become complex, opaque, and ungovernable.… Although these are useful ideas, they only begin a full analysis of finance capitalism. Where did finance capitalism come from? Did neoliberal policy create finance capitalism? Does finance capital exploit differently from industrial capital? And, most importantly, what are the central contradictions that generate crises in finance capitalism?
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.
This month marks the eightieth anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ironically, this comes at the very moment that the capitalist system is celebrating having narrowly escaped falling into a similar abyss. The financial crash and the decline in output a year ago, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, was as steep as at the beginning of the Great Depression. “For a while,” Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in August, “key economic indicators — world trade, world industrial production, even stock prices—were falling as fast or faster than they did in 1929-30. But in the 1930s the trend lines kept heading down. This time, the plunge appears to be ending after just one terrible year.” Big government, through the federal bailout and stimulus, as well as the shock-absorber effects of the continued payouts of unemployment and Social Security benefits, Medicare, etc., slowed the descent and helped the economy to level off, albeit at a point well below previous output.
The July–August 2007 crisis in subprime mortgage markets precipitated the collapse of the market for asset-backed securities, forcing huge write-downs of more than $45 billion on the balance sheets of major banks. In the aftershock, interbank lending dried up. Bond insurers and money market funds were beset by a loss of confidence as the credit squeeze spread. The plunge in stock markets in January 2008 suggests that the repercussions of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market are still working their way through financial markets. With over 170,000 jobs lost and the expected spate of foreclosures, many observers believe that the credit crunch has pushed the economy towards a recession.
Capitalism and market economy are not synonymous, as the dominant political discourse and conventional economists would have one believe. The specific characteristic of capitalism as a system is that it is based on private ownership of the means of production; an ownership which by definition is that of a privileged minority. This private ownership (aside from land ownership) has taken the form of exclusive rights over important equipment associated with modern production technologies, from the first industrial revolution at the close of the eighteenth century to the present day. The majority of non-owners are thus obliged to sell their labor power: capital employs labor; labor has no free use of the means of production. The bourgeois/proletarian divide defines capitalism; the market is only the management form of capital’s social economy.
The year now ending marks the fortieth anniversary of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s classic work, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (Monthly Review Press, 1966). Compared to mainstream economic works of the early to mid-1960s (the most popular and influential of which were John Kenneth Galbraith’s New Industrial State and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom), Monopoly Capital stood out not simply in its radicalism but also in its historical specificity. What Baran and Sweezy sought to explain was not capitalism as such, the fundamental account of which was to be found in Marx’s Capital, but rather a particular stage of capitalist development. Their stated goal was nothing less than to provide a brief “essay-sketch” of the monopoly stage of capitalism by examining the interaction of its basic economic tendencies, narrowly conceived, with the historical, political, and social forces that helped to shape and support them
The announced subject of this conference is “New Trends in Turkey and the World.” I shall not try to say anything about new trends in Turkey, partly because of my ignorance but more importantly because Turkey is very much part of the world, and in this period the mother of all new trends is global in nature. To understand what is happening in any part of the world, one must start from what is happening in the whole world. Never has Hegel’s dictum “The Truth is in the Whole” been as true and relevant as it is today.
Credit where credit is due. For a long time now we have been harping in this space on the theme of a monetary system out of control; of the wild proliferation of new financial institutions, instruments, and markets; of the unchecked spread of a speculative fever certainly more pervasive and perhaps even more virulent than any recorded in the long history of capitalism’s get-rich-quick obsessions. With few exceptions, accredited economists, as is their wont, have ignored these bizarre goings-on: they are not part of the way the economy is supposed to operate and are hence unworthy of “scientific” attention.