Archive for September, 2012

The ‘Implications’ of Paul Baran, Pt 3

September 30, 2012

Forty-six years after ‘Monopoly Capital’

The special July-August 2012 edition of Monthly Review, devoted to the critique of economics, not only includes Paul Baran’s “Implications” and correspondence between Baran and Sweezy that is invaluable in understanding the past of Marxist political economy and monopoly capitalism. It also contains an article by John Smith of Kingston University in London that points to the kind of Marxist economics that is necessary to understand the monopoly capitalism of the early 21st century.

“Monopoly Capital” was published 56 years after Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and 50 years after Lenin’s pamphlet “Imperialism.” The period of time that now separates us from “Monopoly Capital” is approximately the same as that separating Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital” and Lenin’s Imperialism from Marx’s “Capital.”

The world of ‘Monopoly Capital’

As we have seen, “Monopoly Capital” was very much a book of its time. It reflected the changes that had occurred between the era of Hilferding and Lenin and the time that “Monopoly Capital” was written in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Let’s review what those changes were.

The most important was the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which proved to be the defining event of the entire 20th century. For the first time in history, the working class seized and held state power for a substantial period of time. The working class held power long enough to embark on the construction of socialism. As a result, for the first time world capitalism faced a rival economic system that proved in practice, not just in theory, that capitalists are not necessary for modern industrial production.

The other defining event of the last century was the great Chinese Revolution of 1949. Only today can we fully appreciate the significance of this revolution. It began a process of shifting the center of human civilization from Europe and its “white colonies”—including the United States—toward Asia. The days of using the term “Asiatic” as a synonym for backwardness are gone for good.

These revolutions—and there were many others—forced the capitalist classes to make unheard-of concessions to the working classes of the imperialist countries in order to maintain capitalist rule. These revolutions also completely undermined the old European colonial empires—most importantly the British Empire. In contrast, the European empires were near the peak of their power when Hilferding published “Finance Capital” in 1910.

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The ‘Implications’ of Paul Baran, Pt 2

September 2, 2012

Today, as in the past, the marginalist supporters of the “free market” claim that only the market can rationally assign the labor available to society among the various branches of production. Why? Because only the market can price commodities of different use values according to their relative scarcities. They even have a term for it—“consumer sovereignty.” Under capitalism, these bourgeois economists proclaim, the consumer is king.

Among the supporters of this view was John Maynard Keynes. Not just the young economic liberal Keynes, but the Keynes of the “General Theory.”

He wrote in the last chapter:

“…I see no reason to suppose that the existing system seriously misemploys the factors of production which are in use. There are, of course, errors of foresight; but these would not be avoided by centralising decisions. When 9,000,000 men are employed out of 10,000,000 willing and able to work, there is no evidence that the labour of these 9,000,000 men is misdirected. The complaint against the present system is not that these 9,000,000 men ought to be employed on different tasks, but that tasks should be available for the remaining 1,000,000 men. It is in determining the volume, not the direction, of actual employment that the existing system has broken down.”

Paul Baran in the “Implications” strongly disagreed with Keynes on this point as far as monopoly capitalism was concerned, though he seemed to believe it was more or less true for competitive capitalism. According to Baran, even if monopoly capitalism could achieve, with the help of “Keynesian” government spending, something like “full employment” of workers and machines, it would not come close to meeting the rational needs of consumers. In contrast to Keynes, Baran believed that under monopoly capitalism whether nine million out of 10 million workers are employed or the full 10 million are employed, their labor will to a considerable extent be misdirected.

Why did Baran believe that this was so? During the epoch of “free competition”—according to Baran, corresponding to the time of Adam Smith through the time of Karl Marx—the wages of labor were close to biological subsistence, just enough to keep the workers alive and allow them to raise the next generation and little more. This meant that the workers’ consumption was extremely limited. What commodities the workers did get to consume had simple straightforward use values that met their needs to stay alive and raise a new generation. If they hadn’t, capitalism wouldn’t have been possible at all. To this extent, the market mechanism did its job.

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