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Political Economy

February 2016 (Volume 67, Number 9)

Notes from the Editors, February 2016

From mainstream news reports, one might easily conclude that the Paris climate agreement, presented to the world on December 12, 2015, was a complete triumph. The Guardian headlined it as “The World’s Greatest Diplomatic Success.” However, by any meaningful criteria, the Paris climate change agreement was fraudulent, based on a fabric of illusion. Moreover, the distorted media coverage of the climate deal, presenting it as a historical agreement virtually without shortcomings, was made possible in large part by the French government’s banning of the mass climate protests, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. With radical protestors silenced and their demands marginalized, the global power elite could make virtually any public claims it wished, without acknowledging any other public voice or alternative view.

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Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis

Forthcoming in January 2016

Winner of the first Paul A. Baran–Paul M. Sweezy Memorial Award for an original monograph concerned with the political economy of imperialism, John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century is a seminal examination of the relationship between the core capitalist countries and the rest of the world in the age of neoliberal globalization. Deploying a sophisticated Marxist methodology, Smith begins by tracing the production of certain iconic commodities—the T-shirt, the cup of coffee, and the iPhone—and demonstrates how these generate enormous outflows of money from the countries of the Global South to transnational corporations headquartered in the core capitalist nations of the Global North. From there, Smith draws on his empirical findings to powerfully theorize the current shape of imperialism.

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.

Capitalism and Its Current Crisis

The “thirty-year crisis” of capitalism, which encompassed two world wars and the Great Depression, was followed by a period that some economists call the Golden Age of capitalism. Today, however, capitalism is once again enmeshed in a crisis that portends far-reaching consequences. I am not referring here to the mere phenomenon of the generally slower average growth that has marked the system since the mid-1970s. Rather, I am talking specifically of the crisis that started with the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2007-8 and which, far from abating, is only becoming more pronounced.… The Western media often give the impression that the capitalist world is slowly emerging from this crisis. Since the Eurozone continues to be mired in stagnation, this impression derives entirely from the experience of the United States, where there has been talk of raising the interest rate on the grounds that the crisis is over, and inflation is now the new threat.… To claim…that the United States is experiencing a full recovery is, in terms of working class well-being and economic security, wrong. And if we consider the rest of the world, especially recent developments in the “emerging economies,” the situation is much worse.

Digital Labor and Imperialism

A century has now passed since Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy (1915), as well as Rosa Luxemburg’s 1913 Accumulation of Capital, all spoke of imperialism as a force and tool of capitalism. It was a time of world war, monopolies, antitrust laws, strikes for pay raises, Ford’s development of the assembly line, the October Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the failed German revolution, and much more. It was a time that saw the spread and deepening of global challenges to capitalism.… This article reviews the role of the international division of labor in classical Marxist concepts of imperialism, and extends these ideas to the international division of labor in the production of information and information technology today. I will argue that digital labor, as the newest frontier of capitalist innovation and exploitation, is central to the structures of contemporary imperialism.

No Vacation from Politics

Blessed were the times when a man’s decision about his fate lay in his own hands. Blessed were the times when he relied upon himself and was under no one’s direct command and formed his life through his direct relationship to nature. These were times of transparent clarity; these were times of child-like belief in God; these were times of inner peace. The environment [Umwelt] of the man of that time existed outside of his horizon; its events passed him by or broke into his life naturally, suddenly, overwhelmingly. Wars and starvation, epidemics and bad harvests stood on the same plane—they were to man equally strange, equally incomprehensible, equally remote.… This assault of his environment into his existence, these catastrophes which from time to time would bring his life into turmoil, man could not explain to himself. For they were of a different type than he was; for they were covered by a thick impenetrable shroud…. Faith replaced knowledge at that time; prayer replaced action, and fear replaced circumspection.

Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

Forthcoming in May 2016

Thanks to breakthroughs in production and food science, agribusiness has been able to devise new ways to grow more food and get it more places more quickly. There is no shortage of news items on the hundreds of thousands of hybrid poultry—each animal genetically identical to the next—packed together in megabarns, grown out in a matter of months, then slaughtered, processed, and shipped to the other side of the globe. Less well known are the deadly pathogens mutating in, and emerging out of, these specialized agro-environments. In fact, many of the most dangerous new diseases in humans can be traced back to such food systems, among them Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, and a variety of novel influenza variants.

In Big Farms Make Big Flu, a collection of dispatches by turns harrowing and thought-provoking, Rob Wallace tracks the ways influenza and other pathogens emerge from an agriculture controlled by multinational corporations. With a precise and radical wit, Wallace juxtaposes ghastly phenomena such as attempts at producing featherless chickens with microbial time travel and neoliberal Ebola. Wallace also offers sensible alternatives to lethal agribusiness. Some, such as farming cooperatives, integrated pathogen management, and mixed crop-livestock systems, are already in practice off the agribusiness grid.

While many books cover facets of food or outbreaks, Wallace’s collection is the first to explore infectious disease, agriculture, economics, and the nature of science together. Big Farms Make Big Flu integrates the political economies of disease and science to derive a new understanding of the evolution of infections.

In Big Farms Make Big Flu, Rob Wallace stands boldly on the shoulders of giants in clearly expressing the problems with our agroindustrial system that so many already see but far too few are willing to say. With mordant wit and a keen literary sensibility, Wallace follows the story of this dysfunctional—and dangerous—system wherever it may lead, without regard to petty concerns of discipline or the determined ignorance of the commentariat and mainstream research institutions. Big Farms Make Big Flu shows the power, possibility, and indeed, absolute necessity of political ecology, lest we not only fail to properly understand the world, but fail to change it.”

—M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D., Senior Staff Scientist, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

These essays put you in the company of a delightful mind. Wallace is filled with curiosity, deep learning, and robust skepticism. In his company, you’ll learn about phylogeography, clades and imperial epizoology. He can also weave a mean story, with the kinds of big picture analysis that puts him alongside minds like Mike Davis’s. Who else can link the end of British colonial rule in China or the devaluation of the Thai Baht to the spread of bird flu? This collection is a bracing innoculant against the misinformation that will be spewed in the next epidemic by the private sector, government agencies and philanthropists. My copy is highlighted on almost every page. Yours will be too.

—Raj Patel, Research Professor, University of Texas at Austin, author, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

Rob Wallace received a Ph.D. in biology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and did post-doctorate work at the University of California, Irvine, with Walter Fitch, a founder of molecular phylogeny. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is both a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Global Studies, University of Minnesota, and a deli clerk at a local sandwich shop.

Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

Forthcoming in June 2016

Out of early twentieth-century Russia came the world’s first significant effort to build a modern revolutionary society. According to Marxist economist Samir Amin, the great upheaval that once produced the Soviet Union also produced a movement away from capitalism—a long transition that continues today. In seven concise, provocative chapters, Amin deftly examines the trajectory of Russian capitalism, the Bolshevik Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the possible future of Russia—and, by extension, the future of socialism itself.

Amin manages to combine an analysis of class struggle with geopolitics—both crucial to understanding Russia’s complex political history. He first looks at the development (or lack thereof) of Russian capitalism. He sees Russia’s geopolitical isolation as the reason its capitalist empire developed so differently from Western Europe, and the reason for Russia’s perceived “backwardness.” Yet Russia’s unique capitalism proved to be the rich soil in which the Bolsheviks were able to take power, and Amin covers the rise and fall of the revolutionary Soviet system. Finally, in a powerful chapter on Ukraine and the rise of global fascism, Amin lays out the conditions necessary for Russia to recreate itself, and perhaps again move down the long road to socialism. Samir Amin’s great achievement in this book is not only to explain Russia’s historical tragedies and triumphs, but also to temper our hopes for a quick end to an increasingly insufferable capitalism.

Praise for Samir Amin:

What is splendid in Amin’s writing … is his lucidity of expression, his clear consistency of approach, and, above all his absolutely unwavering condemnation of the ravages of capital and of bourgeois ideology in all its forms … Amin remains an essential point of reference, and an inspiration.

—Bill Bowring, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

Samir Amin was born in Egypt in 1931 and received his Ph.D. in economics in Paris in 1957. He is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal. His numerous works include The Law of Worldwide Value, Eurocentrism, The World We Wish to See, and The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.

Marxism and Ecology

Common Fonts of a Great Transition

To link Marxism and ecological transition may seem at first like trying to bridge two entirely different movements and discourses, each with its own history and logic: one having mainly to do with class relations, the other with the relation between humans and the environment. However, historically socialism has influenced the development of ecological thought and practice, while ecology has informed socialist thought and practice. Since the nineteenth century, the relationship between the two has been complex, interdependent, and dialectical.… This essay unearths the deep ecological roots of Marx’s thought, showing how he brought an environmental perspective to bear on the overarching question of social transformation. From there it traces the evolution of Marxian ecology, illuminating its profound, formative link to modern ecological economics and systems ecology. It concludes with the wider project of building the broad and deep social movement required to halt and reverse ecological and social destruction.

A Question of Place

On February 29, 2000, a first-grader in the Buell Elementary School in Flint took a semi-automatic rifle to school and fatally shot his classmate, six-year-old Kayla Rolland. Since then, there have been countless stories about the tragedy in the media. Those I have read or heard have focused on the chaos in the boy’s family and/or guns in the home and community. All have avoided saying that Buell School is in Flint. Instead they have located it in “Mt. Morris Township, somewhere near Flint.”… Buell Elementary School is in the Flint Beecher school district, and has a Flint address and a Flint phone number. But Flint officials, in collusion with GM, deny that Buell is in Flint, which has been known as Buick City. They want to dissociate GM from the devastation and violence that have overtaken the city since the Buick plant closed down.… I was in Flint a couple of weeks before the Buell shooting and GM’s responsibility for the city’s disintegration is as plain as day. A generation ago, Flint was a thriving working-class town. Now the abandoned Buick plant, spread out over an area as large as Detroit’s downtown, sits like a ghostly monster in the midst of empty parking lots, surrounded by block after block of tiny houses, little more than shacks, which once housed GM workers. No wonder Flint suffers from one of the highest per capita rates of murder, rape, and theft in the country.

Whither Japan? Seven Decades After Defeat

The hard-won lessons of Japan’s wartime defeat are enshrined in its National Constitution and Article 9 in particular.… For the past seventy years, Article 9 remained a fundamental principle of Japanese diplomacy, undergirded by memories of the Asia-Pacific War and the U.S. occupation, buttressed by important revisionist histories of Japanese imperialism. A politically recovered, economically restored Japanese populace still appreciates the Constitution and the relevance of Article 9. But conservative politicians who never believed in the Constitution’s ideals repeatedly challenged and worked around Article 9 despite the majority’s support for it.… Today, once again, Article 9 stands in danger of abandonment by interpretation rather than revision by constitutional processes.

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.

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