Paul M. Sweezy wrote in 1982, “it is my impression that the economics profession has not yet begun to resume the debate over stagnation which was so abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.” Thirty years later things appear to have changed. Former U.S. Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers shocked economists with his remarks regarding “stagnation” at the IMF Research Conference in November 2013, and he later published these ideas in the Financial Times and Business Economics.… Summers’s remarks and articles were followed by an explosion of debate concerning “secular stagnation” [which] can be defined as the tendency to long-term (or secular) stagnation in the private accumulation process of the capitalist economy, manifested in rising unemployment and excess capacity and a slowdown in overall economic growth…. Responses to Summers have been all over the map, reflecting both the fact that the capitalist economy has been slowing down, and the role in denying it by many of those seeking to legitimate the system.
The United States came out of the Second World War as the hegemonic power in the world economy. The war had lifted the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression by providing the needed effective demand in the form of endless orders for armaments and troops. Real output rose by 65 percent between 1940 and 1944, and industrial production jumped by 90 percent. At the immediate end of the war, due to the destruction of the European and Japanese economies, the United States accounted for over 60 percent of world manufacturing output. The very palpable fear at the top of society as the war came to a close was that of a reversion to the pre-war situation in which domestic demand would be insufficient to absorb the enormous and growing potential economic surplus generated by the production system, thereby leading to a renewed condition of economic stagnation and depression.… Postwar planners in industry and government moved quickly to stabilize the system through the massive promotion of a sales effort in the form of a corporate marketing revolution based in Madison Avenue, and through the creation of a permanent warfare state, dedicated to the imperial control of world markets and to fighting the Cold War, with its headquarters in the Pentagon. The sales effort and the military-industrial complex constituted the two main surplus-absorption mechanisms (beyond capitalist consumption and investment) in the U.S. economy in the first quarter-century after the Second World War.
Samir Amin’s Review of the Month in this issue, “Popular Movements Toward Socialism,” offers a masterful analysis of struggles all over the world in the era of what he calls “generalized-monopoly capitalism.” The most important theoretical innovation in his article, in our opinion, is his attempt to bring together a variety of global struggles under the rubric of the “movement toward socialism,” borrowing the terminology from the current practice of a number of South American parties: in Bolivia, Chile, and elsewhere. Movements that fall under this mantle, Amin suggests, may include those that seek to transcend capitalism, as well as others for which the object is more ambiguously a radical upending of labor-capital relations.
More than six years after the beginning of the Great Recession in the United States, and nearly five years since it was officially declared over in this country, the core economies of the capitalist world system remain crisis-ridden. The jobs lost in the downturn in the United States have not yet been fully recovered and the economy remains sluggish. In Europe the crisis has hardly abated at all and a number of the peripheral European Union countries are in what can only be called a depression—especially Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The last member of the triad of advanced capitalist centers, Japan, has gone through what have been called two “lost decades” of slow growth and deflation and is attempting once again to jump-start the economy through a combination of devaluation of the yen and deficit spending.
This issue of Monthly Review is mainly devoted to two commemorations: for Paul Alexander Baran, who died fifty years ago this month; and for Hugo Rafael Chávez Friás, who died one year ago this month.… Paul A. Baran was the author of The Political Economy of Growth (1957) and, with Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (1966). Baran’s work on the roots of underdevelopment focused on the way in which the imperialist world system robbed countries of their actual and potential economic surplus, chaining them to conditions of dependency.… Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in March 2013, provided the crucial inspiration for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. Chávez created a new vernacular of revolution linked historically to Latin America’s Bolivarian tradition (marked by Bolívar’s famous statement that “equality is the law of laws”).
The correspondence of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s and early ’60s is one of the great, unknown legacies of Marxian political economy in the United States. Over the past year and a half, I have been transcribing all of these letters with the goal of having the collection published by Monthly Review press, both as a hardcopy book of selected letters, as well as an unabridged e-book. In commemoration of my father, Paul A. Baran, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death on March 26, 1964, we decided to refer publicly for the first time to the Baran–Sweezy Letters Project and to publish a few important and representative letters.
A comparison of the present state of the natural sciences with that of the social (or human) sciences cannot but give rise to a disquieting sense of the relative poverty of the latter. Although natural scientists are raising the alarm with regard to the planetary environmental emergency and are demanding social solutions, social scientists have largely failed to take up the challenge. To be sure, there has been a vast upsurge in recent years of social-scientific discussions of climate change. But most of this work has remained confined within the narrow boundaries of mainstream social science, relying on such amorphous, dehistoricized concepts as human behavior, organizations, institutions, government, economic growth, industrialization, modernization, the market, energy efficiency, public opinion, and the like—variables that can be treated in purely technical, “non-normative” terms, divorced from historical context, social relations, and social agency.… Conspicuously missing from conventional social science is any serious consideration of the actual social system in which we live and which clearly constitutes the root of the problem: namely, capitalism. Also excluded are such fundamental issues as accumulation, class (including its gendered and racialized forms), the state, the cultural apparatus, imperialism, monopolistic corporations, economic stagnation, financialization, Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift—and indeed all the other major historical realities of our time.
The contemporary media reform movement exploded into prominence in the United States in 2003 as a response to the effort by the Bush Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to weaken media ownership regulations.… The size and success of this popular uprising was…a testament to the power of activism to thwart the plans of the powerful in seemingly hopeless conditions.… The Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 expressed interest in media reform and worked closely with members of the movement…. Except for Obama’s speech against the Iraq War invasion, it was arguably his communication platform that most distinguished him as a progressive in the 2008 presidential primaries.… One can debate whether this was an appropriate strategic shift at the time but there can be no debate that the strategy failed. The Obama administration abandoned its platform almost immediately, and repudiated the movement.
Any review of the recent ups and downs of U.S. labor must start in Michigan, long a bastion of blue-collar unionism rooted in car manufacturing. Fifteen months ago, this Midwestern industrial state became another notch in the belt of the National Right to Work Committee, joining the not-very-desirable company of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and twenty other “open shop” states.… The emergence of sun-belt labor relations in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) was shocking to some. But this political setback was preceded by high-profile defeats in neighboring states that began in 2005. First Indiana, followed by Wisconsin and Ohio, stripped public workers of their bargaining rights (although the Republican attack on government employees was later repelled by popular referendum in the Buckeye State). Then in early 2012, GOP legislators in Indiana passed a right-to-work law applicable to private industry.
On November 16, 2013, Paul Krugman published a piece on his New York Times blog entitled “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” consisting of an extended commentary on former Clinton Treasury Secretary and Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers’s November 8 presentation to the IMF’s Economic Forum.… Krugman, in following up on Summers’s IMF speech, highlighted Alvin Hansen’s theory of secular stagnation in the 1930s to ’50s.… [acknowledging that] long-term economic stagnation…was now “the norm” for the economy, not the exception.… Writing in a fashion that could have come straight out of Monthly Review at any point in the last forty years, he declared: “We now know that the economic expansion of 2003–2007 was driven by a bubble. You can say the same about the later part of the 90s expansion; and you can in fact say the same about the later years of the Reagan expansion, which was driven at that point by runaway thrift institutions and a large bubble in commercial real estate.” But in trying to understand how stagnation itself came about and created this whole irrational set of economic conditions, Krugman…failed to draw attention to the much more important problem of investment under conditions of overcapacity and mature industry, as well as the whole question of monopolistic/oligopolistic capitalism—all of which were taken seriously at some level by Hansen, and were developed in a far more radical way by socialist thinkers such as Michał Kalecki, Joseph Steindl, Paul Baran, and Paul Sweezy.
Modern capitalism, sociologist Max Weber famously observed early in the twentieth century, is based on “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor.” But the “rationality” of the system in this sphere, as Weber was to acknowledge elsewhere, was so restrictive as to be in reality “irrational.” Despite its formal freedom, labor under capitalism was substantively unfree.… This was in accordance with the argument advanced in Karl Marx’s Capital. Since the vast majority of individuals in the capitalist system are divorced from the means of production they have no other way to survive but to sell their labor power to those who own these means, that is, the capitalist class.… The result is a strong tendency to the polarization of income and wealth in society. The more the social productivity of labor grows the more it serves to promote the wealth and power of private capital, while at the same time increasing the relative poverty and economic dependency of the workers.
On Thursday, December 13, 2012, The Guardian announced Queen Elizabeth finally received an answer to her question—”Did nobody see this coming?”—about the 2008 financial crisis.… Perhaps she could have also asked three more questions: Does nobody see the suffering and socioeconomic injustices of oligopolistic-finance capitalism? Does no one see that the problems are structural and systemic? And is there no alternative to a system that generates continuous “quadruple crises”—the socioeconomic, political, environmental, and personal/psychological?… The conventional wisdom is “There Is No Alternative,” or TINA. For this reason most Americans simply acquiesce to capitalistic social relations and, like Sisyphus, are resigned to performing eternal tasks while enduring the “endless” quadruple crises generated by a pathological system.… The most extraordinary aspect concerning the absence of an alternative is that it is fallacious. The capitalistic system itself must be transformed. To put it into a slogan: Capitalism Is No Alternative, or CINA.