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Political Economy

Competition and Class

A Reply to Foster and McNally

The postwar economy is widely understood to have gone through two major phases. During the long boom between the end of the 1940s and the early 1970s, most of the advanced capitalist economies (outside the United States and the United Kingdom) experienced record-breaking rates of investment, output, productivity, and wage growth, along with low unemployment and only brief, mild recessions. But during the long downturn that followed, the growth of investment fell significantly, resulting in much-reduced productivity growth, sharply slowed wage growth (if not absolute decline), depression-level unemployment (outside the United States), and a succession of serious recessions and financial crises. My goal in The Economics of Global Turbulence was to explain why the long boom gave way to a long downturn, to reveal why stagnation has persisted on an international scale for such an exceedingly long period, and finally to demonstrate how the failure to resolve the problems underlying the long downturn opened the way to the world economic crisis of 1997-1998  | more…

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century

This widely acclaimed work, first published in 1974, overturned the reigning ideologies of academic sociology and became the standard text for many basic areas of sociological inquiry, including the science of managerial control, the relationship of technological innovation to social class, and the eradication of skill from work under capitalism. | more…

Are New Trade Wars Looming?

I have agreed to talk on the question “Are New Trade Wars Looming?” The answer is yes, but I must also tell you that I think this is the wrong question. What we are really interested in is why trade wars occur and where the economic philosophy we call protectionism comes from. A major cause of the worldwide war and depression that crippled much of the first half of the twentieth century was imperialism and the rivalry of nations for trade, commodities, raw materials, and labor—this produced protectionism. I want to suggest the special importance of finance capital in this process, both earlier in the twentieth century and now. Rather than worrying about trade wars, we should concentrate on the power of capital’s control over our political economy, especially the role of international financiers  | more…

The Road Not Taken

Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), $18, 315 pp.; Mike Parker & Martha Gruelle, Democracy is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up (Detroit: Labor Notes, 1999), $17, 255 pp.

In a very well-known passage, Marx said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Elsewhere, he said, “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” These words of wisdom provide us with a good entry point into a review of these two exceptional books  | more…

Prison Sentences

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (New York: Arcade, 1999), 349 pp., $27.95, cloth.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s old adage, about measuring a civilization by reviewing its prisons, if followed in the U.S. context, is a condemnation of this nation’s own version of the gulag archipelago. A cross-section of prisoner’s writings submitted to the PEN writing contest for the past quarter-century reveals the cold, dark underside of the American dream. Men and women, denizens of both state and federal prisons, write brilliantly about trying to stay human in the midst of places of marked inhumanity, and indeed, places that only succeed if they dehumanize  | more…

Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism

If we define sub-Saharan Africa as excluding not only north Africa but also bracket off, for the moment, the continent’s southern cone, dominated by South Africa, the key fact about the rest—the greater part of the continent—is thrown sharply into relief: after 80 years of colonial rule and almost four decades of independence, in most of it there is some capital but not a lot of capitalism. The predominant social relations are still not capitalist, nor is the prevailing logic of production. Africa south of the Sahara exists in a capitalist world, which marks and constrains the lives of its inhabitants at every turn, but is not of it  | more…

Capitalism in Asia at the End of the Millennium

Two propositions dominated the Marxist perspective in most Asian countries during the period immediately following the Second World War. First, capitalism had entered the period of its “general crisis.” While not reducible to narrowly economic terms, this implied that economic progress would henceforth be stymied. Second, the kind of diffusion of industrial capitalism that had occurred from Britain to Europe, and then in the United States and other temperate regions of white settlement in the period leading up to the First World War, could not be expected to occur in the third world as well. It followed from these two propositions that the development of the Asian countries required their transition, through stages of democratic revolution, to socialism, and that the course of this transition would be made smoother when their proletarian comrades from the advanced countries marched to socialism as well, as they eventually would  | more…

Booming, Borrowing, and Consuming

The U.S. Economy in 1999

As we take our first steps across what Bill Clinton likes to call the bridge to the twenty-first century, we’re hearing a lot of praise for the state of the U.S. economy. The word “boom” is frequently used, as is the phrase “the best economy in a generation.” Wall Street economist Larry Kudlow, one of the most exuberant of his breed, calls it “the only adult economy in the world.” The United States, we’re told, is a natural to succeed in this post-industrial era—fast, flexible, polyglot, and decentered  | more…

Is Overcompetition the Problem?

Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: A Special Report on the World Economy, 1950-98 (Special issue of New Left Review, no. 229, May/June 1998), 262 pp.

It is tempting perhaps to attribute all the problems of capitalism to excessive competition. After all, capitalism is generally presented within contemporary ideology as a system which is nothing more than a set of competitive relations governed by the market. Is it not possible then that the economic contradictions of capitalism, and indeed the present world crisis, can be explained in terms of the globalization of competition which now knows no bounds, and is undermining all fixed positions, resulting in a kind of free fall? This seems to be the view of the distinguished Marxist historian and social theorist Robert Brenner in his ambitious attempt to account for the present global economic turbulence  | more…

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