When stressing the need for a radical structural change it must be made clear right from the beginning that this is not a call for an unrealizable utopia. On the contrary, the primary defining characteristic of modern utopian theories was precisely the projection that their intended improvement in the conditions of the workers’ life could be achieved well within the existing structural framework of the criticized societies…. As we also know, the high-sounding “utilitarian” moral principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number” came to nothing since its Benthamite advocacy. The problem for us is that without a proper assessment of the nature of the economic and social crisis of our time—which by now cannot be denied by the defenders of the capitalist order even if they reject the need for a major change—the likelihood of success in this respect is negligible.
Global Economic Crisis
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?
It is a sign of the seriousness of the current economic malaise that more and more establishment commentators today are turning to Marx for answers. Thus a September 14, 2011, article in Bloomberg Businessweek, entitled “Marx to Market,” acknowledged: “The Bearded One has rarely looked better. The current global financial crisis has given rise to a new contingent of unlikely admirers. In 2009 the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article praising Marx’s diagnosis of income inequality…. In Shanghai, the turbo-capitalist hub of Communist-in-name-alone China, audiences flocked to a 2010 musical based on Capital, Marx’s most famous work. In Japan, Capital is now out in a manga version…. Consider the particulars.… Marx predicted that companies would need fewer workers as they improved productivity, creating an “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed whose existence would keep downward pressure on wages for the employed…. It’s hard to argue with that these days…. The condition of blue collar workers in the U.S. is still a far cry from the subsistence wage and ‘accumulation of misery’ that Marx conjured. But it’s not morning in America, either.” Bloomberg Businessweek seems unaware that Marx viewed the reserve army of labor as applicable not just to developed countries like the United States, but also to labor throughout the globe.
In the last few decades there has been an enormous shift in the capitalist economy in the direction of the globalization of production. Much of the increase in manufacturing and even services production that would have formerly taken place in the global North—as well as a portion of the North’s preexisting production—is now being offshored to the global South, where it is feeding the rapid industrialization of a handful of emerging economies. It is customary to see this shift as arising from the economic crisis of 1974–75 and the rise of neoliberalism—or as erupting in the 1980s and after, with the huge increase in the global capitalist labor force resulting from the integration of Eastern Europe and China into the world economy. Yet, the foundations of production on a global scale, we will argue, were laid in the 1950s and 1960s, and were already depicted in the work of Stephen Hymer, the foremost theorist of the multinational corporation, who died in 1974.
Today’s conservative movement for the reform of public education in the United States, and in much of the world, is based on the prevailing view that public education is in a state of emergency and in need of restructuring due to its own internal failures. In contrast, I shall argue that the decay of public education is mainly a product of externally imposed contradictions that are inherent to schooling in capitalist society, heightened in our time by conditions of economic stagnation in the mature capitalist economies, and by the effects of the conservative reform movement itself. The corporate-driven onslaught on students, teachers, and public schools—symbolized in the United States by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation—is to be explained not so much by the failure of the schools themselves, but by the growing failures of the capitalist system, which now sees the privatization of public education as central to addressing its larger malaise.
In a 1997 article entitled “More (or Less) on Globalization,” Paul Sweezy referred to “the three most important underlying trends in the recent history of capitalism, the period beginning with the recession of 1974-75: (1) the slowing down of the overall rate of growth; (2) the worldwide proliferation of monopolistic (or oligopolistic) multinational corporations; and (3) what may be called the financialization of the capital accumulation process.”… The first and third of these three trends—economic stagnation in the rich economies and the financialization of accumulation—have been the subjects of widespread discussion since the onset of severe financial crisis in 2007-09. Yet the second underlying trend, which might be called the “internationalization of monopoly capital,” has received much less attention.… the dominant, neoliberal discourse—one that has also penetrated the left—assumes that the tendency toward monopoly has been vanquished… [In contrast,] we suggest that renewed international competition evident since the 1970s was much more limited in range than often supposed… In short, we are confronted by a system of international oligopoly.
A striking paradox animates political economy in our times. On the one hand, mainstream economics and much of left economics discuss our era as one of intense and increased competition among businesses, now on a global scale. It is a matter so self-evident as no longer to require empirical verification or scholarly examination. On the other hand, wherever one looks, it seems that nearly every industry is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Formerly competitive sectors like retail are now the province of enormous monopolistic chains, massive economic fortunes are being assembled into the hands of a few mega-billionaires sitting atop vast empires, and the new firms and industries spawned by the digital revolution have quickly gravitated to monopoly status. In short, monopoly power is ascendant as never before.
Nowhere to Hide by Michael Lim Mah Hui and Lim Chin is another book on the financial crisis, although with added attention to Asia. In addition to the regional implications of the crisis for Asia, what makes this volume different from so many others is its critical perspective.… The book thus reflects an insider’s view of the banking system that is informed by a critical, political-economic perspective. As such, Nowhere to Hide makes a good companion to Monthly Review’s own The Great Financial Crisis by John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff. Indeed, there is a close connection between these works, symbolized by the incorporation of Foster and Magdoff’s title into the subtitle of Nowhere to Hide.
I have written repeatedly on the structural crisis in the world-system, most recently in New Left Review in 2010. So, I shall just summarize my position, without arguing it in detail. I shall state my position as a set of premises. Not everyone agrees with these premises, which are my picture of where we are at the present time. On the basis of this picture, I propose to speak to the question, where do we go from here?
There are three dimensions to the current, unprecedented global crisis of capitalism: economic, ecological, and political.
Let us look first at the economic dimension, which will be our main concern in this article. Capitalism is facing a major realization crisis—an inability to sell the output produced, i.e., to realize, in the form of profits, the surplus value extracted from workers’ labor. Neoliberalism can be viewed as an attempt initially to solve the stagflation crisis of the 1970s by abandoning the “Keynesian consensus” of the “golden age” of capitalism (relatively high social welfare spending, strong unions, and labor-management cooperation), via an attack on labor. It succeeded, in that profit rates eventually recovered in the major capitalist economies by the 1990s
The Great Financial Crisis began in the summer of 2007 and three years later, despite a putative “recovery,” it is still having profound effects in the United States, Europe, and in much of the world. Austerity is being forced on working people in many countries. Matters are especially difficult in Greece, a country that is being compelled by the demands of bankers, including the International Monetary Fund, to squeeze its workers in return for loans from abroad to help pay down government debts. Official unemployment in the United States is still around 10 percent, and real unemployment is much higher. An unprecedented 44 percent of the officially unemployed have been without work for over six months. A record number of people are receiving government food assistance as well as meals and groceries from charities. Many U.S. states and cities, facing large shortfalls in their budgets due to falling tax revenues, are cutting jobs and reducing funding for schools and social programs