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.
A sign of the crass economic culture of our times is the recent release by Hasbro of the game “Monopoly Empire” based on the well-known “Monopoly” game, first mass produced in 1935 by Parker Bothers, now a Hasbro subsidiary. The new version can be played in thirty minutes and is designed to take the friction out of the game while glorifying the modern corporate system. Players collect iconic brands of corporations such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Samsung, which they add to billboard “towers” in a race to the top. Players no longer leave the game due to bankruptcy. The goal is simply to build the biggest monopoly brand empire.
It is an indication of the sheer enormity of the historical challenge confronting humanity in our time that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, sometimes now called the Second Great Depression, is overshadowed by the larger threat of planetary catastrophe, raising the question of the long-term survival of innumerable species—including our own. An urgent necessity for the world today is therefore to develop an understanding of the interconnections between the deepening impasse of the capitalist economy and the rapidly accelerating ecological threat—itself a by-product of capitalist development.
When confronted in the 1980s with the failure of the younger generation of economists (both mainstream and radical) to take seriously the issue of the return of economic stagnation, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy stated in their book Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (Monthly Review Press, 1987, 12): “There is a temptation to say: just wait and see, you’ll find out soon enough…. But it would be a cop-out to leave it at that. We owe it to our readers at least to try to make clearer what we mean by stagnation and why we think it is so important.” They proceeded to do exactly that, producing a work that in terms of the trends of the last quarter-century has to be regarded as prescient.… Today, decades later, we can see the depth of the stagnation tendency of monopoly capitalism finally dawning upon some of the most realistic and competent of mainstream economists.
The past half-century has been dominated by the rise of media to a commanding position in the social life of most people and nations, to the point where it is banal to regard this as the “information age.” The once-dazzling ascension of television in the 1950s and ’60s now looks like the horse-and-buggy era when one assesses the Internet, smartphones, and the digital revolution. For social theorists of all stripes communication has moved to center stage. And for those on the left, addressing the role of communication in achieving social change and then maintaining popular rule in the face of reactionary backlash is now a primary concern.… political economists of communication, including one of us, identified themselves as in the tradition of radical political economy, but with a sophisticated appreciation of media that had escaped.… [the stellar critique of journalism produced… by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky]. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were occasionally held up by political economists of communication as representing the sort of traditional Marxists who underappreciated the importance of media, communication, and culture.… We were never especially impressed by this criticism. To us, Monopoly Capital, and the broader political economy of Baran and Sweezy, far from ignoring communication, provided key elements for a serious study of the subject. [Note: this article was released in three parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]
The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy was initially written thirty years ago this coming year as my doctoral dissertation at York University in Toronto. It was expanded into a larger book form with three additional chapters (on the state, imperialism, and socialist construction) and published by Monthly Review Press two years later. The analysis of both the dissertation and the book focused primarily on the work of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, and particularly on the debate that had grown up around their book, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (1966). In this respect The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism was specifically designed, as its subtitle indicated, as an “elaboration” of their underlying theoretical perspective and its wider implications.… Three decades later much has changed, in ways that make the reissuing of The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism in a new edition seem useful and timely. The scholarly research into Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital has expanded enormously in the intervening years, most notably with the publication of the two missing chapters of Monopoly Capital—one on the theoretical implications of their analysis for economics, the other on culture and communications—and through research into their joint correspondence. The Great Financial Crisis and the resurfacing of economic stagnation have engendered new interest in this tradition of thought. Under this historical impetus the theory itself has advanced to address new developments, particularly with respect to the understanding of stagnation, financialization, and the globalization of monopoly capital.
Millions of people throughout the world mourned the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on March 5, 2013. Monthly Review responded at the time with numerous pieces posted on MRzine. We would like, however, to record here briefly something of MR‘s own special relationship to the late president, and what we think constitutes his indelible legacy to socialism in the twenty-first century. MR‘s unique connection to Chávez was largely through the influence of István Mészáros—whose relationship to Chávez stretched back for over twenty years, and whom Chávez called “the pathfinder of 21st century socialism”—and through Marta Harnecker and Michael Lebowitz, who both served as consultants to Chávez.… More than a decade followed in which the socialist revolution under Chávez moved forward, creating huge material, social, and cultural improvements for the Venezuelan population, and vastly increased the power of the people over their own lives through new socialist institutions…. The most vital revolutionary achievement in these years was the introduction of the famous “communal councils”—the general idea for which, as Chávez himself stressed on numerous occasions, was taken from Mészáros’s Beyond Capital.
Decollectivization of China’s rural economy in the early 1980s was one of the most significant aspects of the country’s transition to a capitalist economy. Deng Xiaoping praised it as an “innovation,” and its significance to the overall capitalist-oriented “reform” process surely cannot be overstated. The Chinese government has repeatedly referred to the supposed economic benefits of decollectivization as having “greatly increased the incentives to millions of peasants.” Nevertheless, the political-economic implications of decollectivization have always been highly ambiguous, and questionable at best. Individual or small groups of peasants were frequently portrayed in mainstream accounts as political stars for initiating the process, but this served to obscure the deep resistance to decollectivization in many locales. Moreover, the deeper causes and consequences of the agrarian reform are downplayed in most writings, leaving the impression that the rural reform was in the main politically neutral.
One of the achievements of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration during the Great Depression was the introduction in 1938 of the federal minimum wage, then set at twenty-five cents an hour. At no time in its history has the minimum wage kept workers out of poverty. But it has helped to stave off the full depths of poverty that would otherwise ensue.… Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union Address to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour…has received widespread support from the population. At the same time it has been subjected to severe criticism from key sectors of capital, which have gone into overdrive in pushing their claim that such a raise in the hourly wage of the poorest segments of society would be a devastating “job killer,” increasing unemployment.… If Obama’s proposal were adopted the real minimum wage would still be about $1.50 short of where it was in 1968 at the end of the Johnson administration, forty-five years ago. Yet, this paltry attempt to lift the floor of wages for the poorest workers in the United States—at a time when the annual income of a single parent receiving the minimum wage is well below the federal poverty line for a family of three—is coming under virulent attack from the vested interests.
A historical perspective on the economic stagnation afflicting the United States and the other advanced capitalist economies requires that we go back to the severe downturn of 1974–1975, which marked the end of the post-Second World War prosperity. The dominant interpretation of the mid–1970s recession was that the full employment of the earlier Keynesian era had laid the basis for the crisis by strengthening labor in relation to capital. As a number of prominent left economists, whose outlook did not differ from the mainstream in this respect, put it, the problem was a capitalist class that was “too weak” and a working class that was “too strong.” Empirically, the slump was commonly attributed to a rise in the wage share of income, squeezing profits. This has come to be known as the “profit-squeeze” theory of crisis.
In Marx’s work, no final presentation of his theory of crisis can be found. Instead, there are various approaches to explain crises. In the twentieth century, the starting point for Marxist debates on crisis theory was the third volume of Capital, the manuscript of which was written in 1864–1865. Later, attention was directed towards the theoretical considerations on crisis in the Theories of Surplus-Value, written in the period between 1861 and 1863. Finally, the Grundrisse of 1857–1858 also came into view, which today plays a central role in the understanding of Marx’s crisis theory for numerous authors. Thus, starting with Capital, the debate gradually shifted its attention to earlier texts. With the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), all of the economic texts written by Marx between the late 1860s and the late 1870s are now available. Along with his letters, these texts allow for an insight into the development of Marx’s theoretical considerations on crisis after 1865.