Last week, I examined the letter Baran sent to Sweezy in 1960 that dealt with the concept of the “economic surplus.” Over the next two weeks, I will examine the letter Sweezy sent to Baran dated September 25, 1962, which deals with monopoly, capitalist stagnation and Keynes.
Sweezy and stagnation
Sweezy described himself as a “stagnationist.” In his mature writings, he came to believe that the “default” condition of monopoly capitalism is a state of “stagnation.” But what exactly did Sweezy mean by “stagnation”? To understand what he meant, we have to understand the traditional marginalism that formed the starting point of Sweezy’s economic studies.
Marginalist, or “neoclassical,” economics claims that a capitalist economy has a strong tendency toward full employment of both the means of production and workers. Remember, the marginalists hold that, assuming there are no unions or social legislation, the capitalist economy will have as its normal condition a situation of full employment of both the means of production and workers.
When Sweezy began his economic studies at Harvard before both the New Deal and the rise of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), there was virtually no social legislation or social insurance of any kind in the United States. The union movement was very weak and, outside of mining, in basic large-scale industries was virtually nonexistent.
Therefore, according to marginalist theory the U.S. economy should have been very close to a situation of full employment of both the means of production and the workers. But in the early 1930s as Sweezy was studying economics at Harvard, the U.S. was facing an extreme crisis of mass unemployment. Clearly, there was something very wrong with the economics that Sweezy was learning.