Trade war intensifies as U.S. and world economy slows
The last month has been characterized by a major escalation of the trade war with the People’s Republic of China. In another important but largely overlooked development, Trump also increased tariffs on imports from India, opening yet another front in the expanding trade war.
Trump threatened but did not impose tariffs on imports from Mexico if the Mexican government did not curb the flow of Central American immigrants through its territory to the U.S. This allowed Trump to “energize” members of his racist base concerned that the U.S. is ceasing to be a “white country.” The moves against Mexico illustrate the current phase of imperialism, and I will examine the Mexican situation more closely next month.
All this has occurred against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown. “Sales of new U.S. single-family homes,” Reuters reported, “fell from near an 11-1/2-year high in April as prices rebounded and manufacturing activity hit its lowest level in almost a decade in May, suggesting a sharp slowdown in economic growth was underway.”
This confirms what I wrote last month about the inventory buildup that helped boost the annualized GDP rate of growth to 3.2 percent, signaling a slowing, not accelerating, U.S. economy. The White House and much of the media — especially in the headlines — gave the misleading impression that the GDP report indicated that the U.S. economy was accelerating and the recession danger was fading away.
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This post concentrates on the U.S. economy. However, the basic trends are the same in all imperialist countries.
On October 5, the U.S. Labor Department issued its monthly estimate of unemployment for September 2012. Much to the surprise of most observers, the figures showed a drop of unemployment from 8.1 to 7.8 percent. For the first time in 44 months, unemployment dropped below the psychologically significant level of 8 percent.
The reported drop in unemployment gave a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama reelection campaign, which had been reeling in the wake of the president’s poor performance in his first debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. As could be expected, Democrats were delighted by the unemployment report, which at first glance seemed to indicate that the lagging recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” was finally gaining momentum.
Republicans, on the other hand, were disappointed, and some could hardly hide their anger. Jack Welch, the former head of the General Electric Company and a staunch Republican, infamous for his “downsizing” and layoffs when he was head of GE, even hinted that the unemployment report was deliberately falsified by the Obama administration to boost the president’s chances of reelection.
Is it possible that Welch is right? As we will see, of far greater importance is what the Labor Department’s rate of unemployment actually measures.
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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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